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Omaha Magazine

Urban Core Redevelopment

May 27, 2022 01:38PM ● By Kara Schweiss
stephen osberg headshot

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

When it comes to community development, growth doesn’t always mean expansion. City of Omaha planning department figures suggest that in less than 20 years, Omaha will likely be running out of prime land to develop along its suburban borders. In about 30 years, Omaha’s long history of growth through annexation may be halted by legal and physical barriers. 

According to a recently released strategic plan four years in the making, Omaha’s future growth is expected to be defined as much by the creation of a “vibrant, modern, diverse, and people-forward city center”—focused primarily on eastern parts of the city including downtown and midtown—as suburban spread has characterized the city’s growth in past decades. 

“Our goal can be summarized as ‘30-30-30.’ Bring 30,000 new jobs and 30,000 new residents to the urban core in 30 years—although we now think we can meet this goal in 20 years,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said. “The momentum we have to change our urban core is undeniable. The core should be, and is, rapidly becoming an urban neighborhood, corporate core, entertainment destination, and center of learning. New development and transit bring greater opportunities for employment, housing, education, and entertainment, creating an environment where businesses can grow and families can thrive.” 

In late March, the Greater Omaha Chamber announced its Urban Core Strategic Plan. Noddle Companies President & CEO Jay Noddle, who served as chair of the Chamber’s Urban Core Committee, said the plan’s goal is maximizing the economic development and overall vitality of Omaha’s urban core from midtown Omaha to the western edge of Council Bluffs. The plan is also backed by well-documented, targeted research and analysis; and it includes input from the community, stakeholders, and experts in urban development. 

“There have been a lot of people and organizations involved in this, and we see tremendous opportunities to get this done…We’re doing this to strengthen the core, which will in turn strengthen the region, which will in turn help to make us a first-choice community for talent, for employers, and for the arts,” Noddle said, explaining that the plan includes several key initiatives such as 11 “Big Move” projects designed to stimulate economic development; a “Total Mobility System” that considers parking management, street reconfiguration, and public transportation; focused plans for specific important neighborhoods; the seeds of an attainable housing program; and an implementation plan to guide the chamber’s efforts to attract businesses to the core. “These things are achievable, and we’re getting some really good feedback not only from within the community, but from folks who pay attention to these things on a national basis.”

Stephen Osberg, Greater Omaha Chamber’s director of transportation and urban development, said urban core redevelopment considers business growth, and the effects on residents. 

“The two primary objectives are economic growth and equitable access to opportunities like jobs…we want to encourage job growth in the eastern part of Omaha,” Osberg said, explaining that, despite low general employment regionally, there are pockets of unemployment in the urban core compared to job growth in the community’s western periphery. “There is a spatial mismatch between where people live who would most benefit from some of these jobs and where the jobs are.”

Gentrification (when an influx of affluent businesses and residents changes the character of a neighborhood and pushes out prior inhabitants) has been a documented concern in other cities that have embarked on major urban core redevelopment. The topic has not been off-limits for the parties involved in creating Omaha’s plan, Osberg said. 

“Everything we’ve talked about doing within the core—offering these improvements to transportation, more places for people to live, or more work—that’s attractive to a lot of people, and that means more people are going to want to live there and work there. And that usually means rents are going to go up because of that. The last thing we want to do is turn this into a massive displacement program. So, we’re trying to find ways to focus on housing affordability,” he said. “Within the core in particular, we’re trying to find ways to provide more affordable housing or housing at all levels.” 

In early March, the Omaha Planning Board approved the Urban Core Housing and Mobility Redevelopment Plan focusing on transit and mobility improvements, affordable housing, and job growth as part of the development of the modern streetcar system and Mutual of Omaha’s planned downtown headquarters. 

The urban core should be accessible to everyone, Osberg said. “We have this goal to improve access and opportunity and bring jobs to the eastern part of Omaha. But if people can’t live close to those jobs at all kinds of income levels, then I think we will have missed the mark.”

“We have infrastructure and amenities in the core of our community that are great: what’s happening with [Gene Leahy Mall], the Illuminarium, the Steelhouse, the airport, now a new downtown branch library coming. Those things are all phenomenal,” Noddle said. “But it’s kind of like a three-legged stool. It needs to combine jobs, housing, and transportation. And to have jobs, housing, and transportation, you also need to have infrastructure and amenities.”

Urban redevelopment has its challenges, Osberg said. By comparison, greenfield development, which usually takes place at the edge of a community, gives a developer a clean slate, and large tracts of land can be acquired all at once. 

“Infill development is in an area already built up, and it’s much harder to develop those areas,” he explained. “You have to try to assemble parcels of land together; it’s hard to get enough land accumulated to do a project sometimes. There might already be a building there or contaminated ground and things like that. Also, of course, the neighborhood: if there are existing people living there and working there, they have to be consulted about the development process and those communications take time. All these things make it harder and more expensive to develop in the core.” 

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) can provide support, and there are advantages to infill development, like utilizing existing infrastructure and bringing life to vacant or blighted spaces, Osberg said. By attracting missing services for specific neighborhoods, such as grocery and general merchandise retailers, people are more willing to settle in, Noddle added. 

“Infill development in a neighborhood leads to a livelier neighborhood where there are more things happening, more places to go and more things to do,” Osberg said. “We’ve heard over and over that people want walkable neighborhoods. And you don’t get that without a certain level of density of people and places to go.” 

Walkability can be extended, in a sense. Transportation improvements make clusters of individually walkable neighborhoods and commercial districts appealing and accessible to people throughout a diverse region, Osberg said. 

Urban core redevelopment is also important beyond the neighborhoods and districts involved, Noddle said.

“If it’s not ‘your’ neighborhood, it’s ‘your community,’” he said. “So as the core strengthens, it’s going to cause new development to occur outside the core. You know that expression, ‘A rising tide lifts all the boats?’ We believe the quality of life and quality of community will be greatly enhanced by this work: more public spaces or improved public spaces, and public transportation that’s more abundant and more robust…That kind of infrastructure will lead to growth and the kind of growth that will happen, infill development, will bring more retail, more services, and more choices to the residents of the core.”

“A healthy, successful urban core benefits the entire city,” Stothert said. “A healthy urban core should include housing, jobs, commerce, education, arts and entertainment; and health and wellness for residents, employees, and visitors; and then connect these areas of focus with mobility.”

The revitalized city center is expected to bring in new residents and employers, Osberg said. 

“We want to offer a range of lifestyle options here, everything from a rural acreage to a suburban development to historic neighborhoods to an urban option,” he said. “The urban piece is where we are kind of lacking right now. We want to boost that up.”

“One of the really nice things about what we’re doing is that we’ve been able to take a hard look at what’s happened in other communities when they’ve undertaken initiatives like this,” Noddle said. “The results are real, they’re tangible and the data points are there: It’s going to improve the overall quality of our region, which will make it more attractive to talent to either stay or come here, which will make it more attractive to employers to come here. There are going to be more choices in our community and more offerings. That’s good for everybody.”

Noddle said the Urban Core Committee saw redevelopment as a key factor in ensuring future vitality of the community.  

“First and foremost, it’s important that we find a way to put Omaha at the top of the list for first-choice cities. We want the community to a be a first choice for talent to move to or stay in, and we want the community to be a first-choice city for employers,” he said. “We want to combine our goals of being a first-choice city, which will allow us to grow, with improving the city for those of us who are already here.” 

“Everyone benefits when we grow the downtown workforce, attract and retain new talent, and bring new businesses to the urban core. Destination public spaces, such as The RiverFront, and transit systems, such as the streetcar, will transform the urban core,” Stothert said. “Vibrant, walkable, livable, urban core neighborhoods and business centers offer the types of lifestyle and business amenities that attract talent.”

Growing and successful communities across the country, Noddle said, have a common characteristic. 

“They all have a strong urban core. It’s most often the area that’s the civic center and the center for the arts, and there’s strong housing transportation and employment in the core of most communities. The core sets the heartbeat for the whole region,” he said. “And Omaha/Council Bluffs can use a boost in the core.” 

The next step is executing the plan. 

“You have to be strategic, you have to be methodical, and you have to stay on course. And you have to build these plans so you can pivot and have some flexibility within the plan,” Noddle said. “The committee’s work under my leadership is done. The plan is there. It moves now into an implementation phase.”

It’s only the beginning, Noddle added. He foresees similar groups taking the evolution of the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro area even further. 

“The urban core committee, I hope, is never in a spot where there isn’t a bunch of big moves they’re considering and trying to solidify and have them become reality,” he said. “They should never run out of work to do.”

Public support has been exceptional, Osberg said, with engagement from foundations, businesses, governmental entities, and citizens.  

“It feels like a real cross-sector collaboration that has some momentum behind it and I’m excited to continue to help shepherd it forward,” he said. 

“The city’s role in facilitating development is to be a good partner. The Urban Core Committee’s strategic plan relies on the city, philanthropy, and business working together,” Stothert said. “Nearly everything we accomplish is the result of strong public-private partnerships.

The City of Omaha is a partner in every development underway in the core or in the planning stages, including University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Project NExT, riverfront development, implementation of the streetcar and Total Mobility System, Mutual of Omaha’s downtown headquarters project, Heritage Omaha projects, Creighton University campus development and improvement, the Builders District, and the Millwork District, to name a few. 

“We’ve got the wisdom of senior leaders in our community—elected, appointed, civic, and business—to tap into. We’ve got a whole group of middle-aged and younger leaders who have the desire the energy and the smarts to accomplish this,” Noddle said. “I firmly believe the future is really bright for our community.”

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann


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