Mode Shift Omaha and Restoration Exchange Omaha spent the day at Omaha’s City Hall yesterday. We met with six City Council Members to discuss the City of Omaha/historic buildings/Omaha Performing Arts (OPA) agreements. Then, at the City Council meeting at 2pm yesterday, we spoke in opposition to the agreements. More than a dozen others spoke in opposition to the plans.
First, we would like to share a summary of our meetings with City Council Members yesterday. Most were sympathetic to our concerns and agreed that the agreements before them were less than ideal. They conceded, however, that they have no alternative for getting HDR’s headquarters office downtown. In other words, if they don’t approve the agreement, they fear that HDR will build in west Omaha or another city.
After our lengthy discussions with the Council Members, it is evident that most if not all Council Members will vote to approve the contract.
The good news is there appears to be other occasions during the process wherein OPA’s development plans for the area will need to go through City Council approval. When the aforementioned agreements are executed, the singular focus can and will be on OPA.
We want to thank those of you who wrote to your City Council Members about your concerns regarding this agreement. Your voice is extremely important. We urge you to continue sending e-mails and letters to the City Council between now and their vote on Feb. 23. Let’s keep the pressure on. We need to try to get the City Council to see that there are alternate ways to achieve their goals for Omaha’s economic and artistic growth while also meeting the needs of the general public.
Below is Mode Shift Omaha’s testimony that our Board President, Craig Moody, presented at the City Council meeting yesterday:
I’m here speaking on behalf of the Mode Shift Omaha board of directors.
Let me first say that HDR’s presence downtown is important to the City’s success. That is an unquestionable fact and we completely agree. We also acknowledge the positive impact that Omaha Performing Arts has on our community and we support a more appropriate expansion of the Holland Center. Both organizations represent economic, cultural, and professional assets to our community.
Throughout this process, those monitoring this project have been told at Planning Board and other meetings, that there are certain aspects of the project that aren’t part what in front of that body at that given time. Yet there’s no clearly articulated pathway for when the public should hop in to provide input.
So, today, we do want to offer two primary concerns with the arrangement.
OPA has made it very clear that they desire to build a 520 stall parking garage. Meanwhile Omaha has an absolute over-abundance of parking downtown, which is well articulated in the City’s downtown master plan and the City’s 2014 Parking Study. At peak times, roughly 50% of downtown’s parking is unoccupied. Garages and parking lots, many of which are city owned and operated, sit vacant time and again.
Great cities are not great because of their abundant parking. My wife and I don’t visit Chicago because of their exceptional, inexpensive, always-available parking. These cities are great because of their interesting, diverse space types that are sewn consistently and continually together.
We find it troubling that the City has deemed it reasonable and appropriate to subsidize an unnecessary, private parking garage that will compete against the City’s own facilities AND diminish the quality of our downtown.
The three historic buildings in question are currently filled with a range of different uses that contribute in different ways to that growing district of the downtown. To remove those uses and replace them with primarily parking facilities dampens the potential vibrancy and mixture of different activities that are possible.
Our second concern is money.
There are many better ways to spend nearly $11 million in redevelopment bonds, and we’re not talking about potholes. The use of public dollars to purchase these historic buildings to be given to OPA, with no clearly articulated plan for how they will be used is inappropriate. To date, all the public has seen is a general list of OPA’s programmatic desires for the area and an image of a nondescript white box. We believe the public deserves a clearer picture for what we’re buying.
But the reality is the City is not buying these historic buildings. We’re buying HDR’s presence downtown, which, as we noted earlier, is crucial.
We understand and empathize the position the council is in. None of you want to be the Council Members that are responsible for HDR’s flee to a greenfield out west.
In two weeks, this will likely pass with a unanimous or near-unanimous vote, and we understand why. But that doesn’t hide the unfortunate manner in which the deal has been brokered, the inappropriate plans for too much parking, or the $11 million price tag.
But as we understand it, OPA’s more specific plans for their newly procured block will find their way before this Council again, and we look forward to the conversations that will transpire between now and then so that we can work together toward creating a vibrant, walkable, transit-oriented downtown that Omahans deserve.