The city of Omaha’s plan for Farnam Street to become “two-way all-day” hit a major speed bump Tuesday, as the Omaha City Council unanimously denied a design contract for the project.
A proposed $433,900 contract for Felsburg Holt & Ullevig Inc. would have provided design engineering services for the project. The city planned to convert a portion of Farnam Street — from 46th Street to Happy Hollow Boulevard — into permanent two-way traffic, instead of a one-way street that switches directions depending on the time of day.
Converting Farnam had widespread support, but residents from the Dundee neighborhood took issue with the proposed roundabouts at 50th and 52nd Streets. Five people spoke in support of the roundabouts and twelve spoke in opposition.
City traffic engineer Jeff Riesselman said the roundabouts were necessary for the conversion because they would slow traffic. He said the public works department determined that a roundabout was the safest option for both intersections.
“If a proposition is made to just convert to two-way and do nothing, it is my professional opinion that things would be much less safe,” Riesselman said. “We would be introducing more vehicles…without turn lanes and an increase in traffic during the peak hours, we would be having opposing traffic that doesn’t exist today.”
Timothy Adams from WSP, an engineering firm leading the city’s Vision Zero action plan, said roundabouts are the “single best tool we know of today to eliminate traffic deaths.”
In a statement, transit advocacy organization Mode Shift Omaha said the infrastructure changes are needed to reduce injuries.
Opponents largely focused on pedestrian safety. Peter Manhart, representing the Dundee Memorial Park Neighborhood Association, said the association board unanimously opposed the contract because of the roundabouts. He said children walking to and from school may struggle to navigate them.
Opponent Jim Elliston said there is limited data on the safety of roundabouts in high-pedestrian areas like the Dundee neighborhood.
“Because our community is so walkable, you cannot compare it to other roundabouts,” Elliston said.
Elliston submitted to the public record a petition opposing the roundabouts with over 800 signatures.
Other opponents raised concerns about safety for residents with mobility issues and accessibility for emergency vehicles and snow plows. Riesselman said the roundabouts would be ADA-compliant and designed with emergency vehicles in mind.
Multiple council members expressed support for the conversion, but voted to deny the contract because of the proposed roundabouts. Councilmember Danny Begley, who represents the area, said an “overwhelming” number of constituents opposed the roundabouts at various points in the process.
“I try to make a decision based on what my constituents are saying, what I think is good, and then you just move forward,” Begley said. “It was very clear to me that the consensus of my district — especially that neighborhood — was not to support the roundabouts.”
Council President Pete Festersen echoed Begley’s sentiments, saying that he generally supported roundabouts but that it was important to listen to the neighborhood. He said the conversion plan isn’t likely to move forward without the roundabouts.
The City Council also denied a liquor license for this summer’s Taste of Omaha music festival because of opposition by neighbors. The license was denied 4-3, with Councilmembers Don Rowe, Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton voting to support the license.
The event has been held at Elmwood Park the past two years because of renovations to the Heartland of America Park. Festival director Mike Mancuso said they intended to return to the Riverfront this year, but construction delays forced them to hold the festival at Elmwood for the third year in a row.
Opponent Rick Fulton said the city’s parks shouldn’t be used for business. He said Taste of Omaha closes up Elmwood for weeks and damages the park’s grass.
Jim McGee, representing the Dundee Memorial Park Association, said neighbors supported the event the past two years, but they were told that last year would be the final year at Elmwood.
“We love our restaurants, we support Taste of Omaha anywhere else but Elmwood Park,” McGee said.
Councilmember Begley said that Taste of Omaha is a great event and that he wants to support local businesses, but he promised constituents that it would no longer be held at Elmwood Park.
“I pledged to neighbors who were pushing back against having it in Elmwood in 2022…this the last time we’re going to have it in Elmwood,” he said.
Begley said he and other city officials, including parks director Matt Kalcevich, asked Mancuso earlier this year to look at alternate locations for the event.
Councilmember Don Rowe, who voted to support the liquor license, said it’s important to use public spaces like parks to create community with events like Taste of Omaha.
“There’s 100,000 people from all over the city that enjoy the event and I don’t think it’s totally dependent on alcohol, but for somebody else it might be,” Rowe said.
Mancuso said that at this point, it would be “challenging” to find a new location for the event. Bob Mancuso Jr., Mike’s brother who also organizes the event, added that Taste of Omaha would likely not happen without a liquor license.
“The alcohol and that part of the event helps bring in revenue for the company and for the event Taste of Omaha. So it would definitely not happen,” Bob Mancuso said. “At this late of a stage, we would just have to move on.”
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday to discuss changes to zoning regulations for landscape business and automotive sales.