Go Bold and Build Big Omaha – A Contrarian’s View


 

Go Bold and Build Big Omaha

A Contrarian’s View

With the College World Series upon us again, the contrarian in me comes out. First, let me say that I embrace the CWS as a cornerstone and touchstone event for the city. It is great that Omaha has hosted this NCAA championship for so long and has truly made it its own. The CWS is in many ways emblematic of Omaha itself. Stolid, stable, safe, conservative, family-friendly. Those qualities are certainly admirable in the context of a mass appeal, community-oriented event. But the CWS is also representative of Omaha settling for things that are, well, less than perhaps they could be. I refer to our fair city’s lack of truly major attractions and of monumental places and spaces to visit and gather in. Yes, I know all about the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. But for many of us a zoo is a zoo is a zoo, no matter how many new exhibits you add, and frankly a zoo is a very niche thing that doesn’t even fall into the monumental places and spaces conversation. Indeed, a zoo is the antithesis of wide open expanses by the very nature of its secured confinement fences, gates, enclosures and borders. No, what I mean is an urban park or square or plaza that is rather epic in scope and scale. Something measured in a few acres or a couple square miles. A place where many thousands can gather without being on top of each other. Something where permanent attractions and features are part of the landscape, such as wide walkways, extensive gardens, fountains, sculptures, gazebos, amphitheaters, et cetera. It might also be home to brick and mortar museums, theaters, nature conservancies and other large attractions. The actual outdoor area should be conducive to concerts, plays, arts festivals, hot air balloon launches and any number of other things.

It would be expansive enough to accommodate more than one of these activities at the same time. The closest thing we have to anything like that in Omaha is Memorial Park, which is quite nice for what it is but it is a rather small park with limited features and it certainly strains to the limit when a major concert is held there once a year. There’s the park, a small garden area, the memorial and one big event a year, and that’s it.

The city fathers have missed many opportunities to put something of this scale in place. The planners of the 1898 Trans-Miss Exposition designed something along these proportions but did not have the foresight or will or funding to build permanent structures and thus that magnificent faux city disappeared. Another missed opportunity came in the first quarter of the last century, when Omaha was being built out as a finished city, but nothing even approaching monumental arose. None of our major vintage public spaces compares in size or grandeur to those in similar sized Midwestern cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis or our far west neighbor Denver. Was this because of lack of vision or support? It doesn’t really matter now, except that we are left with what we are left in a rather fixed downtown and inner city landscape. But even within those restrictions more opportunities presented themselves – only Omaha failed miserably each time to realize what could have been. Whether you think it was a good idea or not, the Gene Leahy Mall presented a chance for Omaha to create a big open green space right in the heart of downtown but the leaders got it terribly wrong when they built a smallish sunken mall/park that has virtually no open space to speak of it is so densely designed and its main feature, a filthy lagoon or pond, is less than breathtaking.

 

 

Then there was Jobbers Canyon. Of course, it should have remained just it was – a huge cluster of historic multi-story warehouse buildings begging to be redeveloped for commercial and nonprofit uses. If in the end it did have to be razed, then at least ConAgra and the city should have worked out a deal to create a truly impressive public use park with grand features and spaces. That was not done. What was created is nice enough, but it pales to what could have and should have been. Ah, then there’s the rest of the riverfront development that ensued. Again, it’s a good thing that Omaha finally made it back to the river and cleaned up what had become an environmental wasteland, but leaders were far too timid and constrained with how they repurposed the area. They wasted what was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a bold statement. What’s there is okay. but that’s the point, it’s merely okay, and mediocre and uninspiring. The biggest fault is that there is just not enough there, there. It needs much more open space and many more amenities. The pedestrian bridge is yet another underwhelming structure. None of these things standup to their counterparts in peer cities. Where is our Arch? Our Forest Park? Our Walker Art Center? Our Millennium Park? Our Lincoln Park? Our City Park? Our Liberty Memorial? Our Nelson Atkins?

Another lost opportunity saw the city never follow through and finish the grand boulevard and parks system that would have given Omaha an enduring and distinguishing urban design highlight.

While I am at it, Omaha also lacks a super wide city street to accommodate a truly massive parade with large floats and inflatables and armies of paraders or protestors, as the case may be.

A whole related conversation could be had about all the historic buildings the city has let go and that would have contributed to a much more interesting architectural aesthetic than the one we are left with today.

Perhaps Omaha is a victim of its own easy to please nature. It is ironic though that just as a new generation of creatives and dreamers have emerged in the city, many of them doing bold entrepreneurial things that enrich the culture, they and the rest of us are stuck with a blah city landscape that does not do justice to their/our aesthetics and aspirations. I wish the design of Omaha could start all over again from scratch but since that is not happening, I pray that some dreamers mesh their grand vision with big dollars to create the kind of space and place I describe. Only where would it go? North Downtown and Northeast Omaha would seem the most likely urban, inner city prospects.

Since Omaha will never have an ocean front or a mountain backdrop or dramatic skyline, much less a major professional sports team, it needs a defining, image-making place or space, not just for branding purposes outside the city, but as a point of pride celebration and destination gathering spot for us residents. Nothing we presently have even comes close to cutting it. Perhaps it’s not too late for a major redesign that would build a public park that encompasses the east Creighton Campus and its arts and sports amenities along with the Joslyn Art Museum, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum, with new amenities added to the mix, in one contiguous park complex. Nah, wouldn’t work. you say. Probably not. Then again, why not, or why not something like it somewhere else? Why not a grand design element that somehow ties together the string of amenities up and down 10th Street from North Downtown to the new Blue Barn and beyond to the Lauritzen Gardens and the Zoo. Perhaps it involves somehow making 10th Street a wider, prettier thoroughfare that includes a landscaped promenade with extra wide sidewalks and plenty of perches for vendors. And a true trolley system serving that stretch and the greater downtown and midtown districts.

You can’t tell me that the resources are not available do something of scale given the level of private philanthropy here and the kinds of public monies that can be had for projects that redevelop so-called distressed or blighted areas. It’s just a matter of where the funds are directed or diverted. And what the priorities are. But we’re talking vision here, not soup and nuts. And this city is starving for a big bold vision. We just need enough deep-pocketed folks to catch the vision.

I dread having to go through this litany again in a decade or two. That’s why I say, Go Bold and Build Big Omaha. What are we afraid of?

 

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