The legislative chambers inside the Omaha/Douglas County Civic Center.

Council President Pete Festersen didn’t enforce a three-minute time limit on testimony during Tuesday’s Omaha City Council meeting, leading to over an hour of debate on connecting streets in West Omaha.

The Sundance development, a plan for 251 town home units on a vacant lot near Fire Ridge Elementary, will connect 197th Street with Chicago Street. The project was approved 5-1, with District 6 representative Brinker Harding voting no. Opponents from the area, located in District 6, had concerns that the project would increase traffic and pose a risk to children walking to and from school.

“It’s going to be an urban area now instead of a suburban area,” said opponent Angie Nixon.

Proponents from advocacy groups like Bike Walk Nebraska and Mode Shift Omaha argued that connectivity in the area would be better for pedestrians and alleviate traffic. 

“We’ll decrease the amount of traffic coming through the neighborhood if we can get more kids walking to that school,” Julie Harris from Bike Walk Nebraska said. “But the only way we’ll do that is if we provide more connectivity.”

City Planning Director Dave Fanslau showed the city council a map of stub streets, or dead-end roads, in the area, and there are hundreds throughout the city. When neighborhoods like these are built, it’s always the city’s intention to connect them with wider infrastructure. Fanslau said the planning department wouldn’t be doing its job otherwise.

“Every street that is connected in our city was probably once a stub street,” Fanslau said. “Every time a phase of a development gets done it has a stub street because it’s meant to connect to the other internal streets.”

Fanslau also presented drone video of 197th Street and Fire Ridge Elementary as school got out, and he said it showed that the traffic in the area is not dangerous to children.

A different project in 2013 to build a business park in the area would have connected 197th Street. Councilmember Aimee Melton said she opposed it then, but Fanslau convinced her since this project is for housing.

Councilmember Vinny Palermo pushed back on some of the opponents’ complaints. He questioned what Nixon meant when she said the development would turn their children into “inner city kids, which will make them less safe.”

“There’s another person that says we shouldn’t allow this to happen because those apartments will increase graffiti in crime in our neighborhood,” Palermo said. “Trust me, we sit up here for Omaha. When I hear these things and you hear people say those are West Omaha problems, that’s kind of what I think.”

Turning their attention to the other side of town, the city council approved tax increment financing (TIF) for two affordable housing projects developed by Holy Name Housing Corporation. Each project, one northwest of 17th and Ohio Streets and the other at 1620 Clark Street, received a $310,000 loan. 

“If $310,000 in TIF funds can provide 11 units of affordable housing that’s so badly needed in the community, I’m all for it,” Councilmember Festersen said.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also met Tuesday and received a COVID-19 update from the Douglas County Health Department’s director Lindsay Huse. The health department’s request for a countywide mask mandate was denied by the state and opposed by Mayor Jean Stothert last week, despite high transmission rates.

Huse said we are “at least approaching herd immunity” among older age groups with very high vaccination rates. But younger Douglas County residents, including children not yet eligible for a vaccine, are still seeing rising cases.

Governor Pete Ricketts declared a hospital staffing emergency late last week, as hospitalizations rise. Hospital occupancy rate in the Omaha metro was at 76% Monday night, and has been reported as high as 87%. Huse said hospital systems are concerned that hospitalizations are being underreported.

“They feel that what they’re seeing on the ground doesn’t match that,” Huse said. “They’re working on seeing if that is actually accurate.”

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