Creating 'a true neighborhood'
By Paige Yowell / World-Herald staff writer
Justin Queal remembers the down-on-its-heels north downtown area before its rebirth as the burgeoning residential and arts district that will play host to thousands of baseball fans and teams in town for the College World Series.
The artist, now based in Phoenix, often passed through the area on his way downtown from his previous Ponca Hills home, taking note of the abandoned buildings.
This month, Queal will be spending a lot of time in the neighborhood he remembers as blighted, painting a large mural on the Bloom building at 17th and Cuming Streets. The building is soon to be home to a restaurant and maybe even a brewery. The mural nods to the area’s history and its future.
“It’s inspiring to see the big change down here,” he said. He also sees more promise: “There’s still a lot to be converted,” Queal said.
Less than a block west on Cuming Street, Creighton University design professor Betni Kalk and volunteers worked to finish a mural on another building, owned by Creighton.
Baseball fans in town for the College World Series — or Omahans who just haven’t been in the neighborhood for a while — will this year notice more construction and more north downtown dwellers.
The $1.6 million Bloom project, a development of Omaha’s White Lotus Group, is ready for tenants to begin building out their spaces. China Taste restaurant is awaiting permits to begin construction. Another 4,300-square-foot space in the building has not been leased, although
White Lotus managing broker Spencer Lombardo said the hope is to bring a brewery or high-volume sports bar to serve neighboring Creighton University and event and hotel traffic in the area.
The College World Series and the CenturyLink Center draw thousands of people to the area each year, but many residents and business owners say they want to continue turning north downtown into a bona fide neighborhood, as opposed to only a stage for big events.
Progress toward that goal has accelerated this year, said Laura Alley of Alley Poynter Macchietto Architecture, which has its office in the redeveloped Tip Top building at 16th and Cuming Streets.
“We’re feeling like, finally, this kind of forgotten part of our city has the spotlight,” she said. “Finally, we’re beginning to get some traction.”
One important part of the puzzle, said former City Planning Director Steve Jensen, is the Capitol district project planned for the area between 10th and 12th Streets, Capitol Avenue and the Interstate, which the urban planning consultant said will help link downtown with north downtown.
The long-delayed project is back on track, its developer, Mike Moylan of Shamrock Development, said earlier this week. Expected to open in 2017, the development will feature a full-service Marriott hotel, 226 rental apartments, 125,000 square feet of office space, a 500-stall parking garage and a central plaza.
Still, even with the Capitol project, there’s more work to be done to make the area truly a neighborhood, Jensen said.
“There’s no one thing that makes (north downtown) happen. It’s a whole bunch of things,” he said. “The Capitol District is a big piece, but it’s not going to be the one thing.”
One idea Alley said has been discussed in planning circles is improving the areas beneath the Interstate 480 bridges. So-called pocket parks — mini versions of parks — and street-scape-sprucing efforts are other ideas that have been floated.
Many of the improvements were recommended by a group of urban development experts in town as part of the Daniel Rose Fellowship, a yearlong program run by the national Rose Center for Public Leadership. As part of the fellowship, mayors from four cities select a land-use challenge to explore. Omaha’s centered on the north downtown area.
“What we have longed for is a true neighborhood, and that is what we are beginning to see now,” Alley said.
Some key projects in the area include:
» The Rochester: NuStyle Development renovated a warehouse that once stored hay to house 75 units of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. The $10.6 million project opened June 1 at 1015 N. 14th St., said developer Todd Heistand. As of early this week, 47 units had been leased.
“I didn’t think there would be quite such a demand, but they’re going really fast,” Heistand said.
The Rochester and the $9.2 million Nichols Flats project, underway at 16th and Cuming Streets, will add 142 apartment units to the area. The Nichols project will have commercial and office space on the ground floor.
» The Fitzgerald: A former boardinghouse just east of the Bloom building at 17th and Cuming, the building will house about a dozen one-bedroom apartments. Dave Paladino, owner of the Landmark Group real estate company, is renovating the property at an estimated cost of $750,000 to $1.1 million. He said he’s about halfway through the planning stages and seeking historical tax credits for the project.
» W.I.T. Capital Management: Earlier this year, financial adviser Scott Sladovnik bought the 6,500-square-foot, deactivated fire station No. 4 at 16th and Izard Streets for $346,500 for the future office of his firm, now in west Omaha. Alley Poyner Macchietto is leading the restoration process. Sladovnik said the design and administrative phase of the project — rezoning and replatting — is underway, but renovation costs are still uncertain.
“There was a lot of people that were waiting for somebody else to do something, and then as soon as it appeared that a few things were happening, it seems like (the area) got dogpiled,” Sladovnik said.
» Waiting warehouses: In 2011, Ross Pierson bought a full city block of buildings from 12th and Izard Streets to 13th and Nicholas Streets, hoping to turn them into a College World Series events hub. Now, Pierson said he’s instead looking for a year-round use.
That idea dovetails with Alley’s and others’ desires for the area: “We love the events so much because it does shape the city,” she said of the College World Series and other activities in the area. “But what we want is 365” days a year, she said.
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