We’ve been asked at least a few times why we’re so interested and involved in the current activities surrounding the apparent Omaha Performing Arts plans to demolish three historic buildings in order for them to construct what they’re calling “mixed use” space. We aren’t preservationists, after all. As such, we thought it might be a good idea to set the record straight before the rally this Sunday.
There are generally three reasons why we’re involved.
Reason #1: We don’t need more parking downtown.
OPA’s originally announced plan was to demolish the historic buildings in order to construct a parking garage. They’ve since changed their tune on that a bit and are planning “mixed use” to include several uses, including an estimated 500 parking stall garage.
There is more than ample parking downtown. A 2014 City of Omaha parking study showed there are 41,063 parking spaces in downtown Omaha. Of that number, approximately 56% of the total parking spaces are used during typical peak weekday and 45% during typical peak weekday evening.
In examining the area immediately around the Holland, there is a 1,300 stall City-owned lot immediately across the street and several other surface lots and garages (plus two new garages coming at the HDR and Capitol District developments) within a ten minute walk (see image at right).
Yes, it’s true that some are privately owned, but if the entire downtown system were properly managed and those private garages (often primarily used from 8 – 5 weekdays) were made available to the public during their off-hours, suddenly we might be more efficient with those garages and have less of a perceived need to build more. Said differently, we can increase supply by managing our current infrastructure better rather than adding new infrastructure that doesn’t add to the vitality of downtown.
Reason #2: Historical buildings create a great sense of place.
Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of Spur in San Francisco, recently spoke in Omaha, and he highlighted ten lessons for urban success. Lesson #8 is Celebrate Your History. Historic buildings often create a far more enjoyable sense of place, especially if they’re nicely mixed with great new design. They provide a much more interesting environment, which means it facilitates a more walkable neighborhood.
Walkability is extremely important to the success of the urban environment, a point made very clear by Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City. And an architecturally interesting place creates a more enjoyable, interesting walk for those on foot.
Reason #3: The City is giving away too much.
OPA is selling their surface lot to HDR for $3 million. Meanwhile, the City of Omaha will use redevelopment funds to pay the current historic building owners a total of $10 million for the properties. The City will then turn around and give them to OPA for free. For free. No strings attached. Why should OPA receive such a generous gift from the City with no expectation for what happens with the land? Are there not other nonprofits worthy of such a gift?
We hope that HDR’s excellent design team can lead OPA through a thoughtful exercise to examine their current and future needs with a goal to retain and nicely integrate all four buildings and their current uses. We would also like to see the City of Omaha lead an effort to create a broader vision for the entire area (North Downtown, Capitol District, Gene Leahy Mall, Old Market…then drifting over to the riverfront).
Finally, we hope that OPA and other downtown stakeholders are exploring ways in which they can support and encourage people to use means other than driving (walk, bike, ride the bus, skateboard, carpool, etc.) to get to work or out for entertainment. Dedicating so much space to parking isn’t a valuable use of land, and it doesn’t foster a vibrant atmosphere downtown.
All in all, getting HDR downtown is extremely important, but we mustn’t sell our souls in order to make that happen. Isn’t that what what we did when we demolished Jobber’s Canyon in order to attract ConAgra downtown?
If you agree, please consider taking action.
Rally at the Specht. Sunday, 11/22 at 2pm.
Write to OPA.