Archive for the ‘Community/Neighborhoods’ Category

Park Avenue Revitalization and Gentrification: InCommon Focuses on Urban Neighborhood

February 25, 2018 1 comment


Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification: InCommon Focuses on Urban Neighborhood

Appears in March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann


As revitalization has come to diverse, densely-packed, Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end, near 30th and Leavenworth and Midtown, finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties and shiny new projects on once vacant lots.. The south end, bordering Hanscom Park, is plagued by remnants of drug activity and prostitution. In place of chic urban digs are public housing towers. Amid this transience, reinvestment lags.

Meanwhile, nonprofit InCommon Community Development bridges unchecked development and vulnerable immigrant and refugee populations. Its proactive, grassroots approach to alleviate poverty invests in residents. As a gentrification buffer, InCommon’s purchased two apartment buildings with below market rents to maintain affordable housing options to preserve a mixed-income neighborhood.

“It’s crucial to really involve people in their own work of transformation,” executive director Christian Gray says. “We have a very specific assets-based community development process for doing that. It’s a methodology or mindset that says, we’re not going to do for others, and residents themselves are the experts.

“It’s slower, patient but sustainable work because then you have people with buy-in and trust collaborating together for that change. The iron rule is never do for others what they can do for themselves. We made a commitment when we moved in the neighborhood to set the right first impression. We said, ‘We’re not here to save you or to give away stuff for free. We’re here to listen – to get to know you. We want to hear your ideas about change and be the facilitators of that.’ I think that’s made the difference.”

The faith-based organization “starts with the idea people want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he says. “We help them build their own capacity and then start building relationships. Then comes leadership development. As we get to know people, we identify their talents-gifts. We talk about how they can apply those into developing and strengthening the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is neighborhood transformation. We want them to see themselves as the neighborhood change agents.”

A hub for InCommon’s work is the Park Avenue Commons community center opened in 2013. It hosts GED, ESL, literacy, citizenship, job readiness and financial education classes, first-time home-buying workshops, community health programs and zumba.

“If someone walks out of there with their GED, better English proficiency or better able to provide for their family, we’re pleased,” Gray says.

The center’s also where InCommon hosts neighborhood meetings and an after-school drop-in space, conducts listening sessions, identifies neighborhood concerns and interests and activates residents’ civic engagement.

“One of our shining examples is Arturo Mejia. He’s super passionate about the neighborhood. He started getting involved with the organization and eventually became a staff member. He leads our ESL and GED programming. He also does community organizing.”


Mejia, a Mexican immigrant, says what he’s found with InCommon mirrors other residents’ experiences.

“InCommon’s invested in me in many ways,” he says. “It’s helped me to use my full potential in my work for the Latino community of this neighborhood. InCommon has found the goodness this neighborhood has. When shown the assets, instead of the negatives, residents find encouragement and empowerment enough to keep reaching their goals.”

The community center resulted from feedback gathered from residents like Mejla. The zumba class was initiated by a woman living there.

“Adults come through the workforce channel. Kids come through the after-school channel,” Gray says.

At an InCommon community visioning process last fall, a group of young men shared the need for a new neighborhood soccer field and with InCommon’s guidance they’re working with the city on getting one. InCommon’s gala last fall recognized area superheroes like them and Mejia.

Besides the center, InCommon’s imprints include a pocket park, a community garden and artist Watie White’s mural of neighborhood leaders.

The first wave of redevelopment there, Gray says, “saw “empty buildings activated and populated and it actually brought an infusion of new people, energy and resources – the positive elements of gentrification.”

“It’s certainly cleaned up – but a lot of the problems remain here – they’re just beneath the surface now.”

As more development occurs, the concern is the people InCommon serves “will be displaced.” That’s where the low income housing come in. The Bristol, fully occupied and awaiting renovation, features 64 studio apartments. The Georgia Row, currently closed and undergoing repairs, will feature 10 or 11 multi-family units.

InCommon is investing $10 million in refurbishmentd. Local and state historic tax credits and tax increment financing monies, plus expected low income housing tax credits, are making it possible.

“As a landlord we’re not only able to preserve affordable housing. but we can integrate individual capacity building services directly on-site with residents,” Gray says.

He looks to solidify InCommon’s work in this and other “opportunity neighborhoods” poised for redevelopment.

“Right now, redevelopment is like a tidal wave people get drowned in. We are interested in getting people to withstand and actually surf that wave and leverage it. People have to have some wherewithal to be able to make their own decisions and not be co-opted into other people’s plans. We’ve started looking at how do we get residents more involved in directing how they want their neighborhoods to grow, so none of this happens in ad hoc form. In this more thoughtful approach to creating neighborhoods, there’d be a vision for what residents want Park Avenue or Walnut Hill to look like.

“The goal isn’t to come up with a plan for them, it’s to facilitate the process so neighbors and stakeholders come up with the plan together.”



A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part II

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part II –  Faith, family, community, business, politics…rfaith-walk-work/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a ……/the-shepherds-of-northomahaministers-and- churches-making-a-difference-in-area-of-great-need/…houses-unidvided…idst-differences…g-bread-together/…trinity-lutheran/…en-for-searchers…-catholic-church…-church-in-omaha/…ts-freedom-choir/

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord ……/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/…ng-and-community/

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All ……/nativeomahadays-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/…party-all-in-one…-during-the-days/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine

A Family Thing – The Reader | Omaha, Nebraska’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives/

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine

Entrepreneur and craftsman John Hargiss invests in North Omaha ……s-handmade-world/…on-and-community/…ommunity-college/…estination-place

A Mentoring We Will Go | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories…past-stereotypes/…rs-entrepreneurs

Omaha Northwest Radial Hwy | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

Isabel Wilkerson | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

The Great Migration comes home – The Reader

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

Free Radical Ernie ChambersThe Reader…t-shooter-at-100/…s-the-good-fight

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with ……/norths-star-gene-haynes-builds-legacy-as- education-leader-with-omaha-public-schools-and-north-high-school…

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside ……/brenda-council-a-public-servants-life/‎…ess-and-politics/

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real ……

Miss Leola Says Goodbye | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories…-side-music-shop/

Aisha Okudi’s story of inspiration and transformation …

Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon | Leo ……

Viv Ewing | Omaha Magazine…rri-nared-brooks/…-girls-inc-story/…ica-in-many-ways

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and ……

Pamela Jo Berry brings art fest to North Omaha – The Reader…asketball-league/

Tunette Powell | Omaha Magazine

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark …

Shonna Dorsey | Omaha Magazine

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal …

Patique Collins | Omaha Magazine

One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group

One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group

by Leo Adam Biga

White Lotus Group CEO Arun Agarwal likes to say his Omaha real estate development company has a simple business plan:

“One plus one equals three.”

This win-win-win, sum-greater-than-parts philosophy works for the vertically integrated firm that optimizes design, financing, implementation, delivery and operation of complex or re-purposed real estate assets.

The growing company does projects in various business segments, from the downtown signature hospitality project that is Hotel Deco to the Nebraska Realty’s corporate headquarters office at 17117 Burt Street. Its portfolio of mixed-used projects in five states focuses on value adds fulfilling social-community needs.

30 Metro Place is an example. The $20 million development on the former site of a beloved Omaha eatery, Mr. C’s, will serve the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus, where three new buildings have risen across the street. Together with MCC’s $90 million buildout and the $88 million Highlander Village taking shape a mile south, Metro Place is woven into the North O redevelopment fabric.

The five-story, 113,000-square-foot mixed-use Metro Place will feature 110 affordable apartment units, a retail space, a health and wellness component and connectivity hubs. The City of Omaha stamped its approval on $1 million in tax increment financing for the project.

“What we’ve really tried to do is make this consistent with the college,” Agarwal said. “It’s really meant to be a stakeholders building in the sense it should work for the college as the major anchor in the area, and of course, still be a site utilized by the rest of the community. So we wanted to blend it in as much as we possibly could.”

With a projected spring 2018 delivery, Metro Place’s rectangle box structure will pop once the “prominent exterior rainfall system” panels are installed. The multi-colored fiber cement panels are “a very expensive and forward thinking product,” Agarwal said. “It’s going to be a very complimentary look to what the college is doing. Partly because our building is so big and long, we didn’t want it to be very flat looking.”

White Lotus Group’s Brad Brooks did the conceptual plan. BVH Architecture implemented the full architectural and engineering. Ronco Construction is doing the hard hat.

Metro Place is among several North O projects for WLG. The $25 million, 16.5-acre mixed-use Sorenson Place is taking shape at 58th and Sorenson Parkway after unexpected delays from buried concrete debris.

“That’s a very challenging project,” Aragwal said. “It’s definitely taken a fair amount of time to kind of figure out what the best path is. We eventually came up with an idea to excavate the concrete, crush it onsite and then use it as base for sewer separation projects or other concrete road projects.

“The project’s infrastructure for the most part is in.”

The site will feature 120 senior apartments that could start construction by mid-October. An adjoining Family Dollar store and Armor Storage self-storage facility are both now under construction.

The final acre is out for development or sale, a slice of land that has piqued the interest of a national retail chain.

The senior living component responds to what Agarwal called “a dearth of affordable senior apartment living.

The site’s close proximity to Immanuel Communities and CHI Health Immanuel hospital provides “good complimentary services needed and available to us.”

For the affordable senior housing feature, he said, White Lotus is aiming at HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) financing.

Fakler Architects and Ronco Construction are helping realize the project.

Three projects north of Sorenson Place along the Ames Ave. corridor further exemplify WLG’s approach.

The former Ames Plaza indoor mall has been given new life as a mixed commercial space.

“It’s a great example of a building that many expected to be thrown away, so to speak. The significance or success we find is seeing something that other people can’t see. When we came to the Plaza we saw the skeleton of a building we thought we could resurrect, repurpose and complete an adaptive reuse of.

“Sure enough, an 80,000-square-foot structure slated to be demolished is now not only repurposed, but 100 percent occupied. Heartland Workforce Solutions recently renewed for 10 years. They’re a fantastic community partner.”

Planet Fitness and Amor Storage are other tenants.

“We used tax increment financing on Ames Plaza. The city was the participant there,” Agarwal said.

WLG will next develop a vacant acre-and-a half parcel that came with the Plaza’s acquisition. Praxis and Quarter will develop 12 units of senior housing at 58th and Fowler in what’s dubbed the Ames Row Houses.

Affordable tax credits will be used.

Adjacent to the Plaza is another recent acquisition – the long vacant Ames Bowling center – envisioned as home to employers of 200 to 250 next generation jobs.

“We have a vision of creating the Googlesque Ames Innovation Center there. It’s 43,000 square feet on a single-story, on-grade site. We’ll cut open the ceiling, put an atrium in there and make it very bright. Brad Brooks in our office recently did a refacing or facade improvement plan so that we can do either call center or IT help technology positions. Neighboring Heartland Workforce Solutions would be a huge partner.”

It’s a $5 million development.

Projects like these, he said, have a better investment return than some others “because there’s a lot less competition and for that reason I think your margins are better,” adding, “But they take a lot longer and they’re a lot hairier, so the risk-reward is a different ratio.”

Beyond the financials, he said he’s motivated “to do social good; There’s a need for it.” He said, “You feel good doing it because you know you’re delivering something that is a need, and it’s good professionally from an economic standpoint because you know it’s meeting an unmet demand. So that’s just good business. But there’s such a social need as well. We’re really passionate about this Ames Innovation Center because we think we can create as many jobs as the Walmart on 50th and Ames.”

“I think we can create a state-of-the-art satellite facility in the North Omaha community that brings jobs there,” he said. “We’re working the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to identify employers to provide the jobs. We’re working with Heartland and Metro Community College to provide the training.”

For the plan to work, it has to make business sense.

“Our construction team and design team is working really hard to make it cost effective so that it’s a compelling case for a West Omaha company to do business in North Omaha,” Agarwal said. “I don’t expect anyone to do us a favor by occupying the building. That doesn’t work to us – that’s bad business if we’re begging for somebody to come here.

“To me, if you have double-digit unemployment in North Omaha and you need help desk, customer service, call center, tech jobs that are trainable, then there’s no reason not to cultivate that there and make sure we have a mechanism to train for the jobs we need. It’s going to take a commitment by all parties.”

His company’s applied for Community Block Grant funding and may apply for TIF funds.

“I’m assuming we will apply for other programs as available and as appropriate.”

White Lotus likes working in the urban core space.

“It’s significant to us. Deals in the urban market are tougher to source because there’s a lot of prideful ownership, as there should be, so it’s really hard to assemble properties.”

Agarwal is a licensed real estate agent but works with local brokerage houses, like Investors Realty and The Lund Company, for their expertise.

The group’s Park Plaza conversion reignited a Midtown building and it’s nearing completion of the Turner Park Apartments east of there at 30th and Dodge Streets.

“We really like being adjacent to the Creighton campus. Any collegiate, really – 30 Metro Place being a prime example – we like. We do stuff around the University of Nebraska Medical Center. We’re partners with Green Slate Development and Clarity Development on projects in that UNMC-Blackstone area.”

Millennials are a coveted demographic.

“In the Old Market we’re working on a collaborative co-lab facility in a former Kraft Creamery at 1401 Jones Street,” he said.

The brick structure was among the last available warehouses in that historic district.

“Very few opportunities exist to be a part of downtown. We are excited our project will have a wide appeal taking the best of other Tier 1 cities into a new state-of-the-art model. I’m passionate about the look and feel and the architecture of these buildings. This one looks like its bland from the outside, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We will be pursuing historic tax credits.”

The $5 million project is envisioned as a 43,000-square-foot mixed-use, entrepreneurial shared space for new creativity and new companies, whether in tech, food, marketing or manufacturing.

“We would augment that creative environment with a test kitchen or a brewery. We just finished conceptual planning and are moving into schematic plans.”

WLG has a secret asset on-staff: painter-muralist-sculptor Justin Queal.

“Art is a huge component of our projects,” Agarwal said. “We add cultural art and custom art to all of our projects through installations, paintings, sculptures and custom furniture. We have our own wood shop.

Queal did extensive work for Hotel Deco, A mural he did for the historical J.F. Bloom Building in Omaha’s North Downtown (NoDo district) celebrating the College World Series was featured on ESPN.

Agarwal and his team also engage in suburban projects.

A $150 million 140-acre industrial park is slated for Sarpy County. A planned Northwest Omaha housing subdivision off of 180th and Fort would encompass 110 new homes.

“We have a lot going on. Our team is burning the midnight oil. I’m appreciative of their work.”

Experts weigh-in:

Brett Posten
Principal, Highline Partners
One of the biggest challenges facing a visionary developer like White Lotus Group is that big ideas tend to get lost, diluted and turned into mediocre projects as more and more organizations get involved.

Their vertically integrated model is one of the best ways to make sure everyone is aligned from start to finish. We need more developers who think this big and who can execute it to the end.

30 Metropolitan Place is a real stake in the ground.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
The senior living component is interesting as the baby boomers will start to fill in the existing projects. The gap in market rate and low income senior housing as well as regular housing will begin to stress existing supply. With the increase in the cost of construction and decrease in skilled labor, the emphasis the Governor has put on tech schools and Metro’s commitment to providing education will help rebuild this once thriving area by providing jobs, training and projects in North Omaha. Time will only tell as this area must commit to the catalyst and continue the progress.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
I think that if there are economic incentives such as TIF and HUD financing, projects like these can thrive. The state has been reviewing the use of TIF and it has it’s uses in metro areas as well as rural communities, both trying to drive economic growth in changing climates that the rest of the world left behind.

When states review the use of TIF, this use is different for urban versus rural, but should not discount developers trying to solve the same problem, bringing projects to the underserved while also trying to cover debt service so that these economic hubs don’t become a flash in the pan. White Lotus should be commended for its efforts as it’s easier to build something with a fresh canvas in the sprawling burbs, rather than work through the nuances of redevelopment and struggle to finance while finding investors with similar visions.

History in the Making: $65M Tri-Faith Initiative bridges religious, social, political gaps

Tri-Faith Initiative campus
My latest story for a new media company in town called MorningSky/Omaha that covers commercial development and real estate news in the metro concerns the Tri-Faith Initiative campus. We go beyond construction and design details to explore the social-cultural context around projects.

Here is an excerpt from the Tri-Faith story.


History in the Making: $65M Tri-Faith Initiative bridges religious, social, political gaps

Photo Credit: Scott Griessel
Rendering provided by Tri-Faith Initiative



Where do a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim break bread together?

There’s a place where the answer to this question isn’t a punchline — it’s a lived reality. Omaha is the site of the Tri-Faith Initiative whose vision of a shared interfaith campus for the three Abrahamic faiths is nearing fruition.

Initiative partners Temple Israel,American Muslim Institute andCountryside Community Churchalready break bread together but will soon do so with all three worship spaces intact. The $20 million Temple synagogue was the first structure built on the campus in 2013. A new $6 million mosque opens there this month. The $26 million church starts construction in June.

Being physical neighbors will not only be symbolic but practical, as the partners’ current interfaith activities will be extended at the shared Tri-Faith Center to start construction in 2018. Building from the ground-up is allowing each group to have additional worship and education space and being in such close proximity affords ready access to each other.

This daring interfaith bridge has received worldwide attention. The endeavor began with a conversation between old friends. Temple Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Azriel and leaders of Omaha’s Muslim community, including AMI founder Syed Mohiuddin, deepened an already active bond when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, synagogue members stood watch over nearby mosques to prevent hate attacks.

“That’s where really the relationship forged as a meaningful relationship,” Azriel said.

The reform Temple congregation has a history of fellowship with various faith groups on social justice matters.Sally ElattaFounder, Agile TransformationsI attended my first event at the Tri-Faith center for a potluck lunch where families from all three faiths got to share their food, stories and learn about each other. Being a Muslim, the event brought me tears. It was surreal to see something like that, to believe that unity and love could overtake hate, fear and judgment. The Tri-Faith Initiative is one of a kind and right here in Omaha. Attend an event if you can.

It participated in Jewish-Catholic, Jewish-Black dialogues. Synagogue members and Muslims already met, sometimes at each other’s respective services, but after 9/11’s stand of solidarity those interactions grew.

Azriel said the Tri-Faith is “mainly about relationships.”

Countryside pastor Rev. Eric Elnes said, “Relationships change things more than theology does.”

Azriel said the Tri-Faith goes beyond the superficial.

“What is needed is relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile.”

The project’s built on mutual respect, not merely tolerance.

“That is the change in paradigm,” Mohiuddin said.

A vision takes shape

When Temple decided it had outgrown its then-site, a discussion began about the three Abrahamic faiths doing more than occasional exchanges. Azriel, Mohiuddin and close Christian colleagues broached their intertwined traditions sharing the same campus as neighbors. Thus, the Tri-Faith launched in 2006.

In addition to Temple and AMI, the other partner then was the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. Joint interfaith programs ensued. Support for engagement grew within each community via Dinner at Abraham’s Tent events and annual Tri-Faith picnics. It all prepared the ground for synagogue, mosque and church co-existing on contiguous plots of land. The vision called for each new worship-education centers to face the others and for the shared Tri-Faith Center in the commons space to serve as a communal gathering spot for programs, events, activities and, yes, breaking bread.

Temple and AMI voted to move forward with the bold idea. The small Episcopal diocese explored which of its churches could build anew on the campus.

The Tri-Faith moved a step closer to reality when the campus location was found at the site of the former Highland Country Club. The thirty-five acres purchased in 2011 are situated within the 150-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge commercial development off of 132nd and Pacific Streets. The Tri-Faith is nestled in the southwest portion amidst a gently rolling landscape near what ironically used to be called Hell’s Creek.

Temple moved quickly with plans for its new synagogue. Funds were raised and the building opened in 2013. It marked a dynamic new chapter in Temple’s 150-year history and the first leg of the Tri-Faith experiment to have a brick-and-mortar presence at the interfaith site.

The AMI mosque and education center also completed fundraising in rapid fashion and broke ground in 2015.

The Episcopal Diocese ultimately decided it lacked the resources to participate. That’s when Countryside Community Church, a United Church of Christ member, stepped up as the Christian partner.

“Through our Center for Faith Studies we regularly brought speakers in from either faiths or on topics exploring the intersection between Christianity and other faiths,” Elnes said, “so interfaith association was a natural part of what Countryside was doing. We were identified by the Harvard Pluralism Project as a hot point for interfaith engagement.”

CCC voted to join the Tri-Faith Initiative in 2016. It’s raised most of the needed funds for the new church.

That leaves the $11 million Tri-Faith Center, whose fund-raising is well underway. It’s expected to break ground in a year and to open in 2019.

Monies for the four structures come almost entirely from the Omaha area. Members of all three faith groups have financially contributed to each other’s worship spaces.

“It again reaffirmed my belief that the three faiths are supportive of each other,” Mohiuddin said.

To read the entire story, visit–

To subscribe to the weekly MorningSky/Omaha newsletter, visit–

North Omaha beckons investment, combats gentrification

North Omaha Development roundup
I am reporting for a new media company in town called MorningSky/Omaha that covers commercial development and real estate news in the metro. My first story for the service appeared a few weeks ago and examined some of the major North Omaha development projects underway, soon to be completed and in the planning stages. We try to look at subjects beyond the construction and desgn details to explore the social-cultural context around them.

Here is an excerpt from the North O story.

North Omaha beckons investment, combats gentrification

A $1.5 billion North Omaha revitalization effort is underway, earmarked as the catalyst for overturning decades of neglect.



After a stagnant half-century, northeast Omaha is finally seeing concerted redevelopment.

No significant investment followed in the wake of late 1960s civil unrest, white flight, disruptive urban renewal efforts, and job losses. The ensuing decades brought generational poverty and crime issues as vacant buildings and lots sat dormant.

But now hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction projects are underway. These follow on the heels of a new Walmart, the NorthStar Foundation facility, a Girls Inc. addition, two early childhood learning centers and a pair of church-school campuses given new uses. More developments are in the works.

Many projects are mixed-use. The investments are funded by traditional lenders, tax increment financing and philanthropy. The players involved range from educational institutions to real estate development companies to nonprofit community organizations to foundations to individual entrepreneurs.

It’s part of a $1.5 billion North Omaha revitalization effort earmarked as the catalyst for overturning decades of neglect. Combined with a massive sewer separation project rebuilding aging infrastructure, more capital is being infused in northeast Omaha than ever before. Some development is near major North Downtown revitalization, including the new CHI Healthmedical center under construction and the proposed mixed-used redo of the soon-to-be-vacated Creighton Medical Center. As NoDo investments have increased, the city has intensified its look northward to create greater synergy between northeast Omaha and downtown. The goal is realizing a seamless, interconnected landscape of thriving neighborhoods, arts-culture districts and business nodes, all of which would complement each other.

Highlander Courtyard HousingMeanwhile, a new North O is rising up, most visibly with the $88 million Highlander purpose-built village on North 30th Street and the $90 million Metropolitan Community College trio of buildings running along 30th from Sorenson Parkway to Fort Street. On the historic corner of 24th and Lake, a multi-million dollar renovation of the Blue Lion Center has made it the new home of the Union for Contemporary Art. The nearby North 24th Fair Deal Village Marketplace has added a restaurant and grocery store and given micro businesses an innovative home via corrugated shipping containers. At 26th and Lake, a century-old streetcar barn has been saved from demolition and will house a jobs-generating new owner.

All of it has the potential for attracting more commerce.

Nothing, however, is simple in North Omaha. Even as the emerging new facade offers tangible evidence of physical transformation, concerns exist about disenfranchising current residents and businesses. There are also concerns about addressing internal structural issues. Specifically, education, transportation and employment gaps must be filled to prepare people for and link them to living-wage jobs.

Now that progress is finally here, nobody wants it halted, only that it be mindful and inclusive.

Omaha Economic Development Corporation receives part of the credit for revitalizing $60 million in North O projects.

“I think thing are moving on a good track but we always have to be vigilant and diligent,” OEDC President Michael Maroney said. “We certainly don’t want to stop or dictate progress, we just want to make sure it works for the community. There’s a great deal of pride but there’s also a great deal of concern and the two go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about what’s happening but we also want to be cautious about how it’s happening and accelerating.”

Maroney knew North O’s day was coming.

“I knew it would – I didn’t know when,” he said. “The reality is we’re basically five minutes from downtown, 10 minutes from the airport. We’re in a very strategic area. A city can only grow out so much and then you have to grow from within and therein lies some of the challenges and concerns we’re faced with. How do we grow within?”

Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce strategic development plan served as an early redevelopment guide.

“It identified nodes of opportunity and to really focus in on key areas within the broad swath of North Omaha, so if things would happen in those areas they would have the best likelihood of succeeding,” he said.

That strategic study led to the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which “basically took those nodes and gave more clarity as to what they could begin to look like, I think that began to shape people’s thoughts and attitudes. The need for mixed income housing and more commercial development was loud and clear, and to some degree those kinds of things are bubbling up.”

A driving force and facilitator in getting change-agents to the table is theEmpowerment Network. Maroney works with community partners like it to fashion projects that generate housing, commerce and jobs.

Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, likes the transformation she’s seeing in the Blue Lion renovation the Sherwood Foundation funded and the Fair Deal Marketplace OEDC developed.

“Twenty-fourth and Lake is looking really great right now,” Gerber said. “I mean, it’s great that you can go there and find several food, entertainment and shopping choices. I’d love to see that development continue north because there are some great smaller buildings in that area.”

To read the entire story, visit–

To subscribe to the weekly MorningSky/Omaha newsletter, visit

Omaha Community Foundation project assesses the Omaha landscape with the goal of affecting needed change

The Landscape is a data-driven project by the Omaha Community Foundation that tries reconciling cold hard facts with warm personal stories in order to get a better, more intimate grasp of how the city’s doing in key quality of life areas. Ultimately, the foundation hopes the project gives it and the organizations that donate through it and the nonprofits it partners with a more measurable appreciation for the community’s chronic and emerging needs  and ways to impact positive change in addressing those needs through philanthropic giving. This is my story about The Landscape for the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (


Omaha Community Foundation project assesses the Omaha landscape with the goal of affecting needed change

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appears in the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (




Listening and learning at core of project

Seeking a more equitable Omaha for all 

Data points measuring quality of life factors and stories telling people’s actual lived experiences behind the statistics converge in a new Omaha Community Foundation project.

Launched in 2016, The Landscape is a data-driven look at how the metro’s doing in such key focus areas as health, neighborhoods, safety, transportation, workforce and education. Implicit in the project is a reality-check that finds Omaha’s high Best Place to Live rankings  tempered by issues of chronic poverty, gang violence, sexually transmitted diseases, underemployment, educational achievement gaps and other disparities among underserved populations. The project website connects community stakeholders to content that provides snapshot glimpses of where Omaha stands, for better or worse, in these areas.

Though it went live in 2016, the project hallmarks of using date plus stories was conceived in 2014. Even before that, in 2010, the foundation committed to using data and indicators as part of its strategic plan. The Landscape culls together metrics from various sources to create a free, online public access base whose information is not just for academic or public information purposes but to guide the foundation’s donor, knowledge and nonprofit partners to activate positive change.

“We’re not interested in collecting information for information’s sake. We care about what we can act upon and what we can really do to potentially drive results,” said Omaha Community Foundation President and CEO Sara Boyd. “There’s a lot of discourse not only in this community but across many communities in this country around issues of inequity, poverty, race. For us this isn’t a fad or a trend. We care about this community. We believe the real power to change some of these issues is at the community level.”

At its heart are people’s voices that illustrate and intersect the very challenges and opportunities illuminated by The Landscape.

Boyd said, “We’re spending the vast majority of 2017 really being out in the community and with partner organizations to further connect people with the information about The Landscape and to gain the benefit of more personal experiences from people who live with some of the issues highlighted in the project. We’re really interested in the collaboration and alignment opportunities to be in relationship and conversation with people who do experience these things.”

The Landscape is only as compelling as the information fed into it.

“We really rely on organizations in this community who do this on a more regular basis and already have a vast amount of information or a process ongoing for having these kinds of conversations. We are looking at how this project plugs into, intersects and highlights some of that work and the data available in our areas of focus.”



Keeping it real, keeping it human

Boyd said the goal is to keep people, not numbers, at the forefront since data only tells part of the story. The real essence and nuance about a situation comes not from stats but from people describing their own experiences with everything from domestic violence to unemployment to homelessness.

“We’re trying to balance the data with the voice of people and ground in greater understanding the humanity of what we’re talking about. Looking at the data in isolation, there may be things missed in that study and interpretation that a conversation with somebody who is living in a specific circumstance for some time could help really inform and enlighten.”

The project website,, highlighted the focus areas of health, neighborhoods, safety and transportation to start with. Workforce and education focus areas get rolled out this spring.

A public service media campaign is putting the project’s data-driven descriptor out there. The site tag line reads: “Let’s make our city a great place to call home – no matter who you are or where you live.”

Boyd said the next step is explaining “what this project is all about” and how people can interface with it. The website includes lists of nonprofits to engage, an action kit with specific ways to connect, collaborate and respond and a resources guide for social services and supports. There’s also a page where folks can share their stories. The site is getting traffic and the foundation is fielding calls and emails.


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Identifying disparities and gaps

“I think there’s a lot of intrigue,” Boyd said. “There’s certainly questions around what this information really does mean for us. So part of 2017 is also about having conversations about what our intentions are and how we as a community might be able to utilize this information as a place of power to really help us coalesce around issues at potentially greater levels.

“Some of the data is gut-reinforcing because it confirms our sense for how we’re doing as a community in things like healthcare, where people in poverty naturally do not have healthcare coverage at a high rate. Other pieces of information are more surprising because it runs a little counter to the broader narrative of how we talk about things like poverty. For example, there’s a real housing disparity with black Omahans. Black home ownership here is 8 percent lower than the national average.

“Generally, I think we regard the quality of life and cost of living here as being very affordable but when you actually look at what it costs to raise a family and have a home in our community compared with wages earned, it is affordable for some of us, but not for all of us.”

She said The Landscape’s broad scope provides an accurate picture of Omaha across many sectors.

“If you put everything in a bucket and average it all out it might look really good and it does in many areas for Omaha. Many people, myself included, have a very high quality of life here. But what’s the quality of life for the least well-off community member and how do we use that as a barometer for how we’re doing and how do we raise the levels of those circumstances? If we look at it that way, then I think we’re all going to be better off.”

Boyd said foundation staff and board members acknowledge “these are difficult subjects” that greater Omaha needs to focus on. She makes clear the foundation doesn’t pretend “to know all the answers for what are difficult, entrenched challenges.”

“We don’t know everything,” she said, “and we are grateful for the partnership of so many organizations and people who already contribute to our knowledge, and that will continue. The information on the website today isn’t necessarily perfect. I’m sure somebody might be able to find an insight or add a different perspective to some of these things. It’s a work in progress. We expect this project continues to iterate as we work more in the community.”



No easy answers or quick fixes

The Landscape. she noted, is a resource for the community by the community.

“It takes the community to really wrap around some of these issues to see if we can do better in certain areas. That’s part of the driving force behind this project.”

Boyd emphasized that problems generations in the making will take time to reverse and that the foundation is in it for the long haul.

“We’re not suggesting we throw information out and there’s a tight and tidy solution in six months or even a year from now where we report things have moved remarkably. But it matters. These are large and very consequential issues that require significant attention and persistent focus in order to really get underneath all of the underlying factors and to look at where you might look at drivers of change. Then you have to stick with it as a community to try and make progress. That’s years in the making.”

The reality behind The Landscape’s data sometimes overturns the image of a thriving Omaha and touches on sensitive issues such as race. The truth hurts.

“We don’t want to ignore the fact we see poverty increasing in our community,” Boyd said. “Even if you control for socio-economic status factors there are other points of disparity. If you want to take in the full conversation you have to own that issues of race do present real challenges. Structural issues that have led to poverty or disparity for segments of the African-American, African, Latino-Hispanic communities.

“We have to work to get underneath these issues as a community overall. There is no simple solution. There is no one factor driving this. That’s why we embarked on this so long ago. It just so happens other organizations and communities have been working on these issues and are starting to surface some of the harder conversations. There’s real merit in these discussions.”



Building on each other

Boyd said The Landscape’s efforts are not meant to compete but rather complement work others do in addressing such matters.

“This isn’t meant to take the place of these amazing things that have already been put in motion. If anything, what we’re trying to do is further reinforce some great work already happening and that we’ve tied together in the Landscape. If we can coalesce with these, add additional momentum to where there’s already momentum and continue to bolster progress in others, then we’re all going to benefit as a result.

“Lots of things have been put in motion and this is a piece of a broader puzzle.”

She said The Landscape is poised to aggregate and extend data others gather to reach new audiences and share more information than otherwise possible..

“We may be able to help amplify the voice of groups and their priorities to potentially different constituencies and find areas we can drive at together and row in the same direction on.”

The hope is that the Landscape serves as a catalyst for Omaha’s giving community to take action.

“We’ve got such generosity, will, ambition and competitive spirit that when we look at how we fare versus other communities, we hope it does get underneath somebody’s skin for donors to say, ‘That’s not right, we can be better,’ and we get after that.”

Getting involved

The Landscape invites people to be a part of the change by getting involved, whether serving on a board, working with their neighborhood association, participating in community forums, running for elected office, voting, donating, volunteering.

“There are opportunities at various levels to consider what you bring to the table individually that can help play a role in driving the change and that’s different for different people. We do work with donors and so investment in some of these areas is certainly a possibility. But investment alone isn’t going to accomplish it either.

“We’re also cultivating a group of people who have agreed to be community listeners. These are individuals already engaged in the community who are interested in this journey we’re on with The Landscape. They’ve made a commitment to make decisions in how they engage with the community going forward based upon what they learn through the project.”

Community listeners are among the change agents The Landscape aims to activate.

“They’ve all said, ‘I’m in, I’m interested enough in where this is headed that I’ll refine or change or add thinking to my own community engagement.’ That could include philanthropic investment, business practices, policy work, leadership, creating connections with social capital. There’s any number of things it could influence. What we want is for community listeners to find where they feel personally they can take the most out of the project in terms of their own activation on these issues. It’s going to be different for different community members and what they care about and where they want to place their time and energy.”

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Going with the flow

The Landscape’s designed to be adaptive and to reflect new facts and best practices as they emerge.

“So much of this project has not been linear. It’s been anything but a straight line,” said Boyd, “and we recognize it’s not going to be a straight line path from here to there.”

With dozens of knowledge and nonprofit partners, combined with so many moving parts – meetings, forums, studies – covering such a broad swatch of the community, she said it’s little wonder the project has been “in process for a long time.” She added, “We wanted to be really diligent with this. In order to do this as thoughtfully as we intend to it really requires a lot of conversations with lots of different people and organizations and understanding their priorities and the work they already have ongoing and where there’s alignment and how we can come together.

“Within that framework we have the flexibility and thinking to say some opportunities may appear along the way we want to be open to.”

Getting to this point has been an education.

“I’ve learned so much on this journey and I know I’m not done in my own personal learning. My colleagues would say the same. Members of our board of directors and others we’re talking with feel that way, too. I think a big part of this project is learning together where we are to have a shared understanding. If we can come together with a shared understanding of an issue, then it’s a jumping off point to work on it.”

Data defines the project but an improved Omaha, not an archive, is the end goal.

“We’re going to stay connected to the data on this project. so three to five years from now we’ll want to see how things are going. But we’re not agnostic, we want to see change in the right direction on these indicators. We very much care these things move in the right direction. When we think about our own strategy and the work of the Omaha Community Foundation, we’re going to continue to be thoughtful about the piece of the puzzle we can be in trying to help affect that.

“We also want to be mindful about where the information goes and how it potentially helps our public servants in the decision-making process at the local and state level.”

Putting a human voice-face to the data

Programs and policies are often shaped by individuals’ personal stories. The men and women profiled on The Landscape website offer intimate stories that have the power to influence and inspire change.

“The storytelling is so important to this project,” Boyd said. “The storytelling really gives life and depth and perspective to this data. There’s making the data accessible and then giving the data meaning. That’s going to be an important part of our work going forward.

“We’re trying to help the community and the people who live here make progress together. We’re trying to set a stage for us to work together.”

In The Landscape, everyone has a story, everyone has a say.


Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at


“We’re not interested in collecting information for information’s sake. We care about what we can act upon and what we can really do to potentially drive results.”

“Generally, I think we regard the quality of life and cost of living here as being very affordable but when you actually look at what it costs to raise a family and have a home in our community compared with wages earned, it is affordable for some of us, but not for all of us.”

“It takes the community to really wrap around some of these issues to see if we can do better in certain areas. That’s part of the driving force behind this project.”

“We may be able to help amplify the voice of groups and their priorities to potentially different constituencies and find areas we can drive at together and row in the same direction on.”

“We very much care these things move in the right direction. When we think about our own strategy and the work of the Omaha Community Foundation, we’re going to continue to be thoughtful about the piece of the puzzle we can be in trying to help affect that.”

“We’re trying to help the community and the people who live here make progress together. We’re trying to set a stage for us to work together.”

(Quotes by Sara Boyd)


South Omaha takes center stage

What would Omaha be without South Omaha? Well, for starters, the city would lose a whole lot of history, culture, character and vitality. Just like the murals springing up all over South Omaha, the area is a mash-up of races, ethnicities, cultures, neighborhoods, traditions, colorful characters and intriguing landmarks that express a diverse tapestry of work, family and social life that not only enriches the city’s livability but that helps make Omaha, well, Omaha. Sometimes though it takes an outsider to appreciate the personality of a place. Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces has spent time in South Omaha the last couple years familiarizing himself with the area and its people in prepration for creating stage works that celebrate different aspects of South Omaha for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. In 2015 and again in 2017, the conference’s PlayFest is focusing on South Omaha as part of its Neighborhood Tapestries program and each time Garces has gone into the community to extract its essence. His process involves walking the streets, stopping in places to talk to people and formally collecting people’s stories through interviews and exercises he conducts. His resulting new play “South” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31 during the free PlayFest at Omaha South High School. Some of that school’s students participated in story circles Garces conducted and will perform in the play. This is my story about the appeciation that Garces has gained for South Omaha. The piece appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (

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South Omaha takes center stage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May issue of The Reader (



When applied to Omaha, the word refers to a neighborhood and a school where cross-cultural intersections happen every day. South is also the working title and setting of a new play by Los Angeles playwright Michael John Garces. His original work is having its world premiere at South High on Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the May 27-June 3 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC).

South Omaha’s a landing spot for migrants, immigrants and refugees. South High’s a microcosm of the area and its range of social-racial-ethnic diversity. Garces spent time in South O researching his play. He visited there in 2015 for a similar project. His new drama expresses fears, aspirations, issues and traditions of the two primary populations comprising the area today – Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Other ethnicities are represented in the piece as well.

The GPTC production is part of the conference’s community-based PlayFest. The free show featuring South High students will be performed in the school auditorium. South High is at 4519 South 24th Street.

The annual conference hosted by Metropolitan Community College takes turns exploring aspects of inner city Omaha through its Neighborhood Tapestries. Last year’s focus was North Omaha. This year, it’s South Omaha. Garces visited last fall garnering the raw material for the play from story circles convened with people who variously live, work and attend school there or otherwise identify as South Omahans.

“Community-based work creates a story vibrantly alive in the truths of the specific community participating in it,” said GPTC artistic director Kevin Lawler. “It allows for the community to share stories directly, in-person, and with the depth theater provides. With the annual PlayFest Neighborhood Tapestries we are creating a living history of the local neighborhoods of Omaha that is unlike any other that exists for the city.”

For South, Garces created two fictional families. One, Lithuanian-American. The other, Mexican-American. The lives of Lina, younger sister Gabija and their parents are juxtaposed with the lives of Lupe, younger brother Diego and their parents. The two households contend with things universal across cultures but also singular to their own family and life situation.




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Michael John Garces



Once Donald Trump got elected President, Garces returned for an extra story circle, this time with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who expressed concerns about anti-immigrant stands.

“It just changed what it meant to write a play at this moment,” Garces said. “I appreciated how my colleagues at the conference stepped up to that and had me come back out to have more conversations with people, which was really necessary.”

The threat of DACA’s repeal, wholesale deportations and a border wall were among the concerns shared.

“There was definitely some trepidation expressed to me about what certain changes would mean for South Omaha, particularly for young people.”

In the play Lina’s intensely curious about the legal status of friends Lupe and Diego, who avoid the subject until something brings it to light. The two girls wind up protesting on behalf of immigration reform. Garces said, “I talked to people with a very wide range of relationships to activism, so I wanted to represent young people who were activists like Lina and Lupe, and others, like Diego, who aren’t so much.”

By play’s end, Diego’s run afoul of the law and he and Lina have grown apart. Lina and Lupe ponder their respective futures. Lina’s free to go and return as she pleases. Lupe and Diego don’t have that luxury.

“Lina is frustrated with some things happening in her community and for her to leave is a different choice then for Lupe to leave because Lina knows she can come back,” said Garces, whose play intentionally explores who America is home to and isn’t today.

“I think this notion of home is challenging and contested right now. What does it mean to live in the United States since you were 2 and be told you have to go back ‘home’ to a place you don’t have any memory of and whose language you may not speak and leave the place where you do speak the language and where everyone you know lives. There’s a high degree of precariousness and uncertainty for people.”

Questions about identity and home resonate for Garces.

“There’s definitely personal connections in the play for me of families being put under stress by political concerns and as a young person having to make those decisions. Some of the interpersonal stuff that happens both within the family and with friends resonates, too.

“My father’s Cuban, my mother’s Anglo-American, and I grew up in South America, which has its own series of complexities. But at the end of the day I have friends who can’t make the same choices I can make. Regardless of how complex my life and how hard the choices may be, regardless of my convictions, there is always the simple fact I have an American passport, which unless I do something very specific cannot be taken away from me. And so I have the option of certain choices some of my friends don’t. Me choosing to leave the United States or stay is a vastly different choice than it is for someone who’s not a citizen.”

In terms of how South Omahans view themselves, Garces sees a dynamic, healthy tension between permanency and transition. It’s a working-class place with rich history and strong cultural ties, yet always reinventing itself. The one constant is aspiration.

“When I talk to people in the taqueria or the school or the Lithuanian Bakery or wherever I go, there’s always this sense of people looking forward to what’s going to be possible for the next generation and what is the neighborhood going to be. It’s been so many things but what it’s going to be is always in question.

“The sense of excitement and possibility around that is very real. The food, the murals, the sense when you’re on the street that lives are being made and that it’s a place of possibility – that’s what I’ve really taken away with me from South Omaha.”

He said even apart from questions about how federal policies, laws or executive orders might crack down on illegal immigrants, currents of change fill the air.

“I hear this from young people, old people, people from a wide range of backgrounds talking very consistently about how the neighborhood is perceived to be changing. People talk about what they think is positive about that change but also express concern.”

He said he finds people there take a “great deal of pride in their origins. whether Lithuania or Mexico or other places, whether they’re first, second or third generation.” He added, “They’re very proud, too. of being from South Omaha. At the same time they feel South Omaha is not highly regarded by people not of South Omaha.”

GPTC associate artistic director Scott Working, who’s directing the play, admires what Garces has wrought.

“He artfully distills dozens of stories and hundreds of images into these beautiful collections of relatable moments. His characters absolutely feel like you ran into them on South 24th Street. Some of our younger cast were a part of the South High discussion and recognize moments in the play that were in that conversation.”

Garces was still tweaking the ending in mid-April. Though he also directs and heads L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he’s put the production in the hands of Working, co-designers Bill Van Deest and Carol Wisner and costumer Lindsay Pape.

“As a writer I tend to try to create a framework that’s pretty open for the designer and the director to interpret that physical world. I talked to Scott about how from my writer’s perspective I think the play needs to flow and there needs to be rhythm but beyond that I’m trusting in them to capture something sort of essential about what it means to be in South Omaha. I’m actually excited to see what they come up with.”

Garces has enjoyed the experience of representing the former Magic City in a dramatic structure.

“It’s been a really good process. I’ve felt really supported by the conference. I don’t mean to sound all Hallmark about it but you occasionally have those artistic experiences that just feel good and this has been one of them. This has felt really right.”

He’s also come to feel a kinship for South O. Though he’s learned much over two years, he considers himself “more informed guest” than honorary South Omahan.

For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit

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