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Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

March 28, 2018 1 comment

Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

©By Leo Adam Biga
©For MorningSky Omaha
Read the entire story @

Marty Shukert has seen his own hometown grow from his expert urban planning
designer’s perspective. The 70-something former Omaha City Planning director,
now a principal at RDG Planning & Design, grew up in Benson. That
community, like much of Omaha, has metamorphosed in his lifetime.


Photo courtesy of Visit Omaha’s Facebook.


Marty Shukert has seen his own hometown grow from his expert urban planning designer’s

perspective.

The 70-something former Omaha City Planning director, now a principal at RDG Planning

& Design, grew up in Benson. That community, like much of Omaha, has metamorphosed

in his lifetime.

title
Marty Shukert. Photo courtesy of RDG.

Shukert, an Omaha By Design consultant, is impressed by the local construction boom whose infill and renovation is revitalizing the urban core.

When he began his professional career in the early 1970s, Omaha was much smaller. The westernmost city reaches stopped at the Westroads. Boys Town was in the country. Downtown was dying, the Old Market was a fledgling experiment. By the 80s, neighborhood business districts were struggling.

In and out of city employ, he’s seen Omaha make horrendous mistakes (North Freeway) and cultivate unqualified successes (Old Market). He witnessed $2 billion in riverfront and downtown redevelopment. He saw an abandoned tract of prime land repurposed as Aksarben Village and the entire Midtown reactivated. After years of decline, he saw South Omaha remake its old industrial and business districts. After years of neglect, he’s seeing North Omaha revitalized.

His old stomping grounds, Benson, is one of several historic named neighborhoods enjoying a renaissance after going stagnant or suffering reversals.

After decades of suburban sprawl, Omaha’s recast its gaze inward. Shukert is taken aback by the multi-billion dollar resurgence transforming Old Omaha.

“I don’t think there’s any question about” the dynamic development space Omaha’s in,

he said.

Just the housing slice alone of this big pie is impressive.

“The number of in-city or central city housing settings being built is dramatic,” Shukert

said. “We’re building that density.”

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After years wondering why developers weren’t doing mixed-use commercial-residential

projects in the urban core, they’ve become plentiful, including the Greenhouse where

RDG offices, and the Tip-Top.

“The other thing that’s interesting to see is the flowering of neighborhood business districts.

When you look at something like Vinton Street or South Omaha or Benson or Dundee or

Old Town Elkhorn or Florence or the 13th Street Corridor or a number of other places,

they’ve really become interesting little innovation centers.

“There’s now the Maker neighborhood developing.”

He said a few district stakeholders kept them going when times got hard.

“Then they got an infusion of activity in the 1980s. Dundee kept going with a few blips.

Benson sort of took a dip. And then a funny thing happened in that a new generation of

people – younger Genxers and millenials – discovered these areas were kind of cool.

They’d traveled and seen other things and they saw the space was cheap and said, “Why

not?”

Designated Business Improvement Districts, TIF and historical credits opened funding

streams and tax breaks.

“So now you see this flowering of these areas. You see what Benson has become. Where

20 years ago it would be a desert on Saturday night, now you can’t find a parking place.

Jay Lund and Matt Dwyer in Blackstone District, with the impetus of the Nebraska Medical

Center’s investment and status, had the vision to not just talk about what could happen

there but actually went out and bought buildings and made it happen.

“Latinos and others have made South Omaha and Vinton Street a real center for business

enterprise.

“All these forces came together and found fertile ground in these neighborhood business

districts, and that’s a very exciting thing to see.”

The momentum extends well beyond the urban core. Old Elkhorn is enjoying a renaissance.

“There’s nothing wrong with West Omaha having its own version of the Old Market,” Shukert

said of this historic district filled with eateries and galleries.

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West Farm development rendering.

“We’ll see what happens with West Omaha’s own version of Aksarben Village,” he said,

referring to Noddle Companies’ mammoth West Farm development.

In North Omaha, the historic 24th Street business district is reemerging after years of

disruption and disinvestment. Florence is enjoying a comeback. North 30th Street is

seeing pockets of major development (the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha

campus and the Highlander project), but the Ames Avenue to Cuming Street Corridor is

still ripe for new investment.

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The Highlander.


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.

That’s a very interesting development corridor because of the nearness to Creighton

University, the Nebraska Medical Center and Metro Community College, another key

player

in that area, and to NuStyle’s redevelopment of the old Creighton Medical Center. So

that becomes a very important and vital development corridor.”

Shukert applauds recent gains made by North Omaha African-Americans in employment,

education and other areas of disparity that a decade ago made this populace among this

nation’s poorest. New data show great progress. These socio-economic strides coincide

with the area’s rebound and reflect the work of many change agents, including the

Empowerment Network, plus projects and programs to increase home ownership,

improve neighborhoods and reduce crime.

“Some of the stuff done over the decades has really begun to take root. It’s a slow process.

It all doesn’t happen at once. But for the first time we’re really seeing quantifiable progress

and reversals happening in North Omaha, and that’s all really good. You really do get the

sense the ship has turned and it’s taken the efforts of many people over a number of years

to get there.

“The momentum now is clearly there.”

Something that hindered North O progress, he said, was the North Freeway, a 1970s Urban

Renewal project he called “a monumental mistake.” It effectively severed a community and

its “damaging” impact lives on today.

“It shouldn’t have been built. Now that it’s a fact of life, we’ve got to figure out what to do with

it. One thing that is an expensive but creative solution is to cap part of it or put bridges or

parks or development over it. I really think that needs to happen.”

Moving from the macro to micro, he said, “One of my pet peeves is the environment under

interstates. These are just dismal environments. Barren concrete. Broken up sidewalks. Dim.

Unsafe looking. They’re not what a city of our aspirations should have. And this gets to

another of my pet peeves – the condition of some of these routine environments” –

distressed sidewalks, curbs, streets, stairs – “we pass every day and anesthetize ourselves to.”

Growing Omaha is experiencing more traffic congestion. This once 15-minute trip city is

25-minutes today. The federally-funded Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system slated to start

running in 2018 and a possible streetcar system may relieve jams and better connect people

to jobs, shopping, arts and entertainment.

“I think transportation is a really important issue. We honestly don’t have the density or even

the space to build a rail transit system here. Transit and transportation modes are really

fundamental to building the density we need. The BRT idea has gotten popular because its

a way of accomplishing some of those purposes affordably. The BRT is not cheap. It’s a

$30 million proposition. But compared to rail – estimated at $130 million – it’s really cheap.”

 


 

 

 

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Omaha’s Old Market

 

The Mercer family did preserve and activate an adjacent former produce district as the

Old Market.

“Had they not had the vision to start and sustain the Old Market, nothing would have

happened,” Shukert said. “We wouldn’t be here talking about how good downtown is

without them, Their work over the years has been just fundamental. The Old Market

really kept people coming here after hours, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have

a contemporary city center.

“Now it’s interesting to see that sort of momentum spreading out around the city in

these neighborhoods that have been up again and down again and now they’re very

much up again as urban settings.”

He wishes developers and planners would approach more downtown projects the

way the Mercers did.

“What’s always been terrific about the Old Market is it’s incrementalism – it was not

all done at once – and its scale. There’s not any space that’s over-scaled.”

In downtown, he said, “the big projects are nice but the scale sometimes is too big or

they’re done as super blocks or separated from their environment and don’t have

much in the way of spin-off effects, and the finer grain projects are what really add

life to the place.”

He described the Hilton and First National Tower structures as “introverted projects

that don’t have much surface area,” adding, “I’m not criticizing those projects

because they’re creatures of their time.”

“I think we’ve always had a problem in Omaha of building very good individual projects

and not building the fabric that links those together. We’ve not built a public environment

that gets people out of buildings. You can look at downtown Omaha at noon and go,

where are all the people? It’s a function of that introversion – of these big projects that

tend to keep their people captured inside.”

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The Capitol District.

Mike Moylan’s (Shamrock Development) mixed-use Capitol District is designed with connectivity in mind.

“It’ll be interesting to see how Capitol District develops because it aims to create a private-public space that isn’t just sort of ornamental but actually is activated by things around its edges.”

Shukert embraces public spaces that engage. “We don’t have that kind of a plaza or space in downtown.” He said if Capitol District is to fulfill that, “it will depend on how it’s programmed and subdivided and detailed. If these spaces surrounding it are filled with shops and they’re all leased and doing well and there are people out here at noon eating outside, it will work. And if not, it will feel pretty empty.”

“First National Bank has built some really nice outdoor public spaces that are private property and they’re very nice gifts to downtown,” he said, “but they’re not active spaces. They’ve tended to be more

ornamental because they’re not surrounded by things.”

Despite misfires, he believes Omaha’s “generally done open space well.” The

Gene Leahy Mall included. “I think the Mall is looking its age and is going to be

going through at least a second high-end, high-art designer look at it. But it was

a revelation when it opened. It was full of people. Heartland of America is a really

nice space with the connection to the riverfront and all those things within their

constraints.” He also likes the space at the foot of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Two central city projects offer contrasting public spaces.

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Aksarben Village’s Stinson Park.

“Aksarben Village has been very successful and a contribution to that success is Stinson Park. That park works not because it’s monumental, even though it’s a good-sized space, but because it’s got trail connection, playground and kids-oriented stuff, space for concerts, smaller areas along the street where you don’t have to deal with the rest of it. Turner Park has the same kind of relationship to Midtown Crossing, but I don’t think it’s as successful. It’s a nice space, but it doesn’t have the same relationship to the things around it.”

The site of the recently razed Civic Auditorium offers a unique development opportunity downtown.

“Omaha, like most cities undergoing downtown renaissance, is building a lot of apartments and rental

settings for empty-nesters on both sides of the age spectrum. But it’s not

building a neighborhood. The important thing we ought to be doing, rather than

always the same model culture of five-story or greater apartment buildings, is

high density but still largely single-family urban neighborhoods. Let’s make this

a place where families will live.

“Another opportunity like that is where Enron Center isn’t. There’s one building

that Physicians Mutual has, but there’s still the rest of that site over there on the

west side of 24th Street (and Dodge) that’s never really developed.”

 

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Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

October 24, 2017 Leave a comment

My latest MorningSky feature story picks the brain of veteran Omaha urban planner Marty Shukert, who takes a long view of Omaha Development.

 

Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

©by Leo Adam Biga

MorningSky Omaha

 

Marty Shukert has seen his hometown grow from his expert urban planning designer’s perspective.

The 70-something former Omaha City Planning director, now a principal at RDG Planning & Design, grew up in Benson. That community, like much of Omaha, has metamorphosed in his lifetime.

Shukert, an Omaha By Design consultant, is impressed by the local construction boom whose infill and renovation is revitalizing the urban core.

When he began his professional career in the early 1970s, Omaha was much smaller. The westernmost city reaches stopped at the Westroads. Boys Town was in the country. Downtown was dying, The Old Market was a fledgling experiment. By the ’80s. neighborhood business districts were struggling.

In and out of city employ, he’s seen Omaha make horrendous mistakes (North Freeway) and cultivate unqualified successes (Old Market). He witnessed $2 billion in riverfront and downtown redevelopment. He saw an abandoned tract of prime land repurposed as Aksarben Village and the entire Midtown reactivated. After years of decline, he saw South Omaha remake its old industrial and business districts. After years of neglect, he’s seeing North Omaha revitalized.

His old stomping grounds, Benson, is one of several historic named neighborhoods enjoying a renaissance after going stagnant or suffering reversals.

After decades of suburban sprawl, Omaha’s recast its gaze inward. Shukert is taken aback by the multi-billion dollar resurgence transforming Old Omaha.

“I don’t think there’s any question about” the dynamic development space Omaha’s in, he said.

Just the housing slice alone of this big pie is impressive.

“The number of in-city or central city housing settings being built is dramatic,” Shukert said. “We’re building that density.”

After years wondering why developers weren’t doing mixed-use commercial-residential projects in the urban core, they’ve become plentiful, including the Greenhouse where RDG offices, and the Tip-Top.

“The other thing that’s interesting to see is the flowering of neighborhood business districts. When you look at something like Vinton Street or South Omaha or Benson or Dundee or Old Town Elkhorn or Florence or the 13th Street Corridor or a number of other places, they’ve really become interesting little innovation centers.

“There’s now the Maker neighborhood developing.”

READ the rest of the story at–

https://morningsky.com/…/urban-planner-marty-shukert-takes-long-view-of- omaha-development

MindMixer: Rethinking the town hall meeting

August 28, 2013 1 comment

MindMixer is more than a great name, it has a great concept and utility behind it too.  Entreprereurial partners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim have combined their urban planning and tech savvy skill sets to an online platform that is rethinking the town hall meeting.  My B2B Omaha Magazine story about the duo and their innovative Omaha-based business follows.

 

 

20130628_bs_2691

MindMixer founders Nathan Preheim (left) and Nick Bowden

Rethinking the town hall meeting

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.

Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.

The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?

Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”

The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.

 

 

Nathan Preheim

Nathan Preheim

 

 

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”

Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”

“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden

Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.

By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.

Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.

“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”

 

 

20130628_bs_2712

Nick Bowden

 

 

Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.

“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.

Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”

With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.

To see this story and other stories in this issue of Omaha B2B Magazine visit its website at: http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/

Mid-Century Modern Leaves Its Mark

February 4, 2013 2 comments

Architecture is not something I usually write about or think about, not because of disinterest, indeed the few times I’ve read or watched interviews with architects I’ve found their discourse fascinating if a little over my head and outside my comfort zone.  If I’ve learned nothing else in my game it’s that when a subject or assignment presents itself that makes me a bit anxious then that is precisely a subject or assignment that I need to pursue.  Such was the case with the following story I did for the Omaha Home section of Omaha Magazine on Mid-Century design and its expression in Omaha architecture of that style.  It was edifying to interview architects who applied the principles of that movement in their work.  I hope the story’s edifying to you.

Mid-Century Modern Leaves Its Mark

©by Leo Adam Biga, ©photos by Bill Sitzmann and Kristine Gerber

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine’s Omaha Home section

 

In post-World War II America a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function, came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.

What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October 7 Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.

Restore Omaha president Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.

For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes, for example, they may have long admired from afar or been curious about to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring-the-outdoors-in.

 

04 December 2012- MCM buildings are photographed for Omaha Magazine.

The Swanson Branch Library designed by Leo A. Daly architects in the Brutalist architectural style, which was popular from the 1950s to 1970s.

 

Leo A. Daly company headquarters.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters is a shining model of modernist-inspired architecture.

 

Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.

Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light and green design-construction elements.

There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.

Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.

Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.

But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building’s since been converted to condominiums.

Together, the Swansons, Daly, How and Polksy, transformed the built Omaha.

“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”

 

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

 

Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because it’s forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.

“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight.”

Passive solar features and energy efficient systems were rarities then.

Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.

“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern and Mike loved it  But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”

One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill.

Home buyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.

“We’re a pretty conservative group, Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”

 

 

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

 

Don Polsky at his drafting desk.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk, circa 1979.

 

Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.

Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.

The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”

The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark.

For details, visit http://restoreomaha.org.

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

December 26, 2012 9 comments

Omaha’s popular arts-culture district the Old Market didn’t happen by accident, it evolved with the careful nurturing of landlords, entrepreneurs, and artists whose vision for the city’s historic wholesale produce center went against the tide at a time the district’s future was up for grabs.  The late 19th and early 20th century warehouses that now are home to shops, restaurants, galleries, and condos might easily have been lost to the wrecking ball if not for visionaries and pioneers like Roger duRand, a designer who took a firm hand in becoming a creative stakeholder there.  This short profile of duRand for Encounter Magazine provides some insight into the forces that helped shape the Old Market in the face of certain obstacles.

 

 

 

Roger duRand

 

 

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Cafe and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.

He’s been a business owner there himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades he made his home and office in the Old Market.

The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows, and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned tearing them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.

He’d apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand, a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.

He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.

“We trudged through all the empty buildings and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age, they were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.

“They were such an asset.”

“When I first came down here the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing, with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff – heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.

“A really interesting urban environment.”

He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village.

“I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

That eventually happened thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Howard St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing.

The early Market scene became an underground haven.

“In 1968 it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.

Experimental art, film, theater and alternative newspapers flourished there.

City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.

“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” whom he said resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.

“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars and gift shops. Adventuresome young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”

The French Cafe helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.

Te social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit, it was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”

Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

He fears as the Market’s become gentrified – “really almost beyond recognition – it’s lost some of its edge though he concedes remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”

duRand and his wife Jody don’t live in the Market anymore but he still does work for clients there and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.

Learn about his authentic design at http://rogerdurand.com.

 

 

 

A duRand designed interior

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

August 15, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, my Omaha.  I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence.  That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made.  In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha.  Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed.  The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.”  Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production  and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.

What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.

While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about  one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.

The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.

The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.

The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.

Warehouse district street scene. Omaha - NARA - 283718.tif

Jobbers Canyon before

 ConAgra campus that replaced Jobbers Canyon

The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.

The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.

Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.

Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.

So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.

Psychiatrist-Public Health Educator Mindy Thompson Fullilove Maps the Root Causes of America’s Inner City Decline and Paths to Restoration

July 4, 2012 5 comments

America’s inner cities are sick.  Have been for a long time.  They’re long overdue for a sweeping public health approach that gets to some of the root causes of their decliine over the past 40-some years.  North Omaha (really northeast Omaha) is a case in point.  It’s long been in need of a transformation and one finally is underway after years of neglect, half-starts, spotty redevelopment, counterproductive urban renewal efforts, and rampant disinvestment.  Psychiatrist and public health educator Mindy Thompson Fullilove has done much research, writing, and speaking about what’s happened to drag down inner cities and what’s needed to bring them back and I wrote the following piece on the eve of a presentation she gave in Omaha.  I interviewed her in advance of her talk.  I did attend her program, and though I didn’t do a followup story to report what she said I can tell you she covered many of the same points she made with me in our session.

Mindy Thompson Fullilove

 

 

 

 

Psychiatrist-Public Health Educator Mindy Thompson Fullilove Maps the Root Causes of America’s Inner City Decline and Paths to Restoration

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared iin The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The low standard of living found in segments of Omaha’s inner city mirrors adverse urban conditions across America. Poverty, low test scores, unemployment, gang violence, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and STDs, distressed/devalued properties all occur at disproportionately high rates in these sectors.

Psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a public health educator at Columbia ((N.Y.) University, studies the causes and consequences of marginalized communities. A pair of talks she’s giving in Omaha next week, one for the public and one for health professionals, will echo local efforts addressing economic-educational-health disparities, infectious diseases and inner city redevelopment.

By training and disposition Fullilove looks for the connections in things. Much of her research focuses on linkages between the collapse of America’s urban core and the corollary decline in health — physical, psychological, emotional, environmental, economic — endemic there. She blames much of the blight on fallout from late ‘40s through mid-‘70s urban renewal projects.

Many longtime Omaha residents rue the North Freeway for driving a stake through the heart of a once cohesive, stable community. Hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses were razed to build it. Critics say this physical-symbolic barrier divided and damaged an area already reeling from late ‘60s riots that destroyed the North 24th St. business district, which only hastened white flight.

These interrelated phenomena, Thompson Fullilove believes, caused widespread carnage in cities like Omaha — displacing families, disrupting lives, rupturing communities, dragging down quality of life, property values, self-esteem and hope. In her view urban renewal was part of policies that “destroyed neighborhoods” — as many as 2,500 nationwide by her calculation — in the guise of progress.

 

 

“Many of the ways in which we built at that time involved demolishment of a neighborhood,” she said by phone. “There were these very large projects put in so that the old grid of the city was fused into sort of super blocks and huge things built on them like cultural centers or universities that made a fundamental change in the flow of the city. A lot of these projects were really not very thoughtful and didn’t work. So we’re living with the aftermath of very bad urban development, much of which is now coming down and being replaced.”The kind of severing of neighborhoods that occurred when freeway projects cut through the heart inner cities

Witness the sprawling Logan Fontenelle public housing project that came down a few years ago in northeast Omaha. In the early ‘70s, large tracts of land dotted with homes and businesses in far east Omaha were cleared for airport expansion. Anytime people are forced to move from their home it’s a major stress that can dislocate them from family, friends, jobs, neighborhood, community.

“Displacement is always accompanied by violence,” said Thompson Fullilove. “When people are displaced they need help to get back on their feet but if there’s never any help then things can get worse and worse. You get anger, hostility, and then people, instead of being able to solve problems, are just trying to survive.”

She said when people live outside social networks-support systems, epidemics like AIDS, STDs or gun violence emerge and grow entrenched. Often she said, people displaced from their homes also get displaced from blue-collar jobs. “People have no way to make a living and no social network to fall back on, so it’s really a double whammy,” she said. The results? “Terrible crime as people try to do work in the underground economy.” Thus, the drug trade thrives, gangs go unchecked. Some observers say Omaha’s African American community is still hurting from the packinghouse/manufacturing/railroad jobs lost in the ‘60s-‘70s.

She said today’s info service-high tech economy leaves many workers behind. “You have to get people to learn skills, you have to get people more education and you have to be inventing what they’re going to work at, and all these require a stable, engaged city as a center of exchange not a city of haves against have-nots,” she said. “Until cities are places of development, we’re in bad trouble as a nation.”

A term she uses to describe displacement’s trauma, “root shock,” is also the title of a book she authored examining how the ripple effects of urban renewal impact whole swaths of cities and persist long after the bulldozers leave.

“It has a ripple both in time and in space,” she said. “So tearing up a neighborhood has ripples for a whole metropolitan area and it also has ripples over time for generations of people who live in that area. Also, when you demolish a big area it creates a ripple of destruction on the other side of the area you demolish — you also decrease the value and the stability of the properties. And as those properties decline in value and really fall apart the properties next to them fall apart, and then the properties next to them fall apart. So you can actually take a drive in a place where there was urban renewal and find the leading edge of the destruction, typically a couple of neighborhoods over from where the urban renewal was done and, sometimes, even further.”

Site of the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects now a park and single-family home neighborhood

 

 

 

She said the decline extended to downtowns.

“Many neighborhoods demolished for urban renewal were near downtown or part of the downtown,” she said, “so demolishing a lively neighborhood which added to the strength of a downtown shopping center contributed to the collapse of many American downtowns, which are only slowly coming back.”

Like a disease introduced into a larger host, she said as urban decline spread it compromised the health of entire cities.

“It installed something that was dysfunctional in a critical part of the landscape of the city,” she said, “Although we think of all the terrible things that happened to the African Americans who actually lived in many affected neighborhoods, the worst consequence is that we made our cities weaker, so the whole nation lives with that grievous error. Cities are important for our nation because they really are the economic engine. So undermining the cities the way we did weakened our whole economic prosperity. You might say one of the seeds of this current economic crisis is in the destruction of our cities.”

From her perspective, America hasn’t corrected these problems — “what we’re doing instead is continuing to use versions of the same process.” She said even where a city center may enjoy a renaissance “it’s being rebuilt with the goal of attracting people from the suburbs to come back to the city.” That’s gentrification. “So the goal is not to make the city a welcoming place for all people that might like to live there. As opposed to figuring out how do you make a city which is a place of exchange, you’re making a city a place of exclusion,” she said, “and that’s just as destructive as urban renewal.”

She notes there‘s not yet widespread understanding among policymakers, developers and stakeholders of processes that diminish-threaten public health. She’s hopeful conferences like one she was at earlier this month in NYC, Housing, Health and Serial Displacement, “really open up this conversation, because I think if we’re going to have exciting cities in the United States it requires really a new approach to how you build cities, not just pushing people out.” She and her husband, community organizer and sociomedical sciences expert Robert Fullilove, work with urbanists on strategies for sustainable, inclusive, built environments.

Through the couple’s think tank, Community Research Group, they study and advocate holistic, public health approaches to urban living dynamics that view cities as ecosystems with interdependent neighborhoods-communities. What happens in one district, affects the rest. If one area suffers, the whole’s infected.

“You can’t undermine stable living conditions in a neighborhood or a community without bringing down the quality of life of everybody in the area, and it’s a very large area that then gets affected,” Thompson Fullilove said. “The foundation of health is good living conditions. Health is sort of our ability to enjoy our lives.”

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