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It’s been pretty quiet on the downtown parking front the last few weeks, but some important decisions will soon be made that will impact our City for the long haul. We thought it might be time kickstart the conversation.

So let’s first recap what we know…

HDR announced plans to build their headquarters + a 1,150 stall parking garage (they were originally thinking 1,500 stalls) at 11/12th and Capitol/Dodge awhile back without having secured the property, which is mostly owned by Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) with a small portion owned by the City.

When HDR told OPA of their interest, the OPA Board and Chairman John Gottschalk began seeking other properties to replace what might soon become HDR’s world headquarters. OPA zeroed in on the four historic buildings at 11th & Douglas – the same buildings they attempted to obtain 15 years ago.

OPA couldn’t reach a deal with those building owners so they went to the City to ask for help. The City offered them several other location alternatives; none were satisfactory to OPA – those options didn’t give OPA the same flexibility they had with their current arrangement.

The City subsequently commenced negotiations with all parties (HDR, OPA, building owners) to work out a deal. The main (if not exclusive) motivation was to ensure HDR moves downtown. Negotiations resulted in the following:

  • The City will purchase all four buildings for $10 million and then gift them to OPA
  • OPA will sell their lot to HDR

Once OPA takes ownership of those buildings, they can demolish three of them without any public hearings or approvals. All they need to do is obtain a permit from the City and get the current tenants out. The fourth building, the Specht, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has City of Omaha Historic Landmark Designation. In order for it to be razed, Omaha’s Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission, Planning Board, and City Council would all have to vote to de-list it. Unfortunately there’s precedent for as much in Omaha (Jobber’s Canyon, Clarinda-Page).

OPA has since offered a suggestion that their desire is for “mixed use” on that block, which we understand to be office space on the 5th floor, parking on floors 4 through 2, parking surrounded by splashes of retail on the 1st floor, and parking in the basement.

The City also sketched out a few other alternatives for OPA that would retain most or all of the historic buildings, but none were apparently satisfactory to OPA. Their desire is for 520 stalls that they would primarily lease to daytime office workers in the area…not their patrons.

The agreements between the City and building owners and the City and OPA must be approved by the City Council. Public hearing is on January 12. These agreements are all contingent upon one another. If one falls through, the whole house of cards tumbles.

So that’s what we know. And here’s our take on the whole deal.

First, OPA’s desire to financially support its operations by getting into the parking businesses is misguided and hinders the vitality of our city. Razing historic buildings to build a parking garage is not a good idea. Plain and simple.

Second, we have to give the Mayor a little credit for her public position on parking, noting this excerpt from the 12/15 OWH, “Mayor Jean Stothert and city planners say they want to radically change how Omahans see parking. Garages that might appear necessary now, they say, will seem redundant in the future.” She has several quotes, and we’ve heard from her firsthand, that there’s a better solution to parking downtown and in the the area around the Holland Center specifically. 

With that said, we’re not keen on spending $10 million in redevelopment bonds only to turn around and give those buildings away. There are many other places where that kind of money could be used (riverfront, ConAgra campus, transit-oriented development around a future streetcar line, etc.). The Mayor views it as an investment to get HDR downtown.

Finally, HDR has around 900 employees, but they’re building a garage for 1,150. We’ve heard many times that HDR leadership committed to one parking spot per employee. Let’s repeat that: HDR, the firm that’s led many of Omaha’s urban planning and transportation planning efforts (e.g. Downtown Master Plan), is planning one parking spot per employee.

Ultimately we understand, appreciate, and agree with the desire to get HDR downtown. But are we really creating the kind of downtown we want through this series of events and decisions? We pine for a downtown that is vibrant and easily accessed by users of all transportation modes. Large swaths of parking don’t contribute to either.

So what to do about it? Here’s our short list:

  1. Contact your City Council member and ask that they offer amendments to the City’s agreements that would a) disallow the demolition of any historic buildings and/or b) explore limitations on privately developed parking so as to push more people to city-owned garages. And plan to attend the January 12 City Council meeting. 
  2. Contact OPA and suggest they might be able to financially support their mission without razing historic buildings in order to get into the parking business.
  3. Contact HDR to encourage them to walk the talk a bit and reduce the size of their planned parking garage.

We’re working hard to stay abreast of the situation and will circle back as we learn more.

One Reply to “A Summary of and Our Take on the HDR/OPA Downtown Situation”

  1. dirk says:

    crony-capitalism (the 10million speaks louder than words) and trickle-down economics is the political philosophy of the mayor and her party so no surprises here this is just business as usual for them. These kinds of buildings&parking lots won’t spur community development/infill downtown as they serve the interests of the commuting class and now the local chamber of commerce booster newspaper is pushing to merge the city and the county so this latest deal in the works is a symptom of deeper pathologies of our kleptocracy:

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