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One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group


One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

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.

http://www.morningsky.com/

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Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition


Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

Vic Gutman is creating Omaha’s version of a year-round public market, modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

A Mother Goose nursery rhyme describes the joy of going to market for everything from a fat pig to a plum bun. After a decline, real-life public markets are making a comeback.

The Omaha Market House, Livestock Market and City Market once all operated. With the advent of the Omaha Farmers Market in 1994 and the subsequent emergence of co-ops, community gardens and urban farms linking producers with consumers, Omaha’s food ecosystem is reviving lost arts.

The next logical step in this move back to a local foods nexus is the public market slated to open in fall 2018.

The planned Tenth Street Market is the dream of Vic Gutman. The founder of the Omaha Farmers Market and Omaha Summer Arts Festival, his newest project culminates his extensive research into public markets and long-stated goal to bring one to Omaha again.

Built in 1890 as a streetcar barn, the Rail & Commerce Building at 10th and Pierce is set to become the Tenth Street Market, a year-round public market modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

His company Vic Gutman & Associates is busy raising funds for the nonprofit project that needs $18.3 million to repurpose a 108-year-old building as the public market place. Upwards of two dozen permanent vendors as well as pop-ups, dine-in restaurants, enclosed event spaces, and a scenic rooftop eating-viewing spot are called for in Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s design. The all-local vendors will variously sell fresh and imported produce, meat, fish, cheese and assorted prepared foods ranging from baked goods to ethnic bites. Many trends will converge at the market: farm-to-table purveyors, street food, fine dining and education.

Ever since he first experienced one in his youth, Gutman’s been intrigued with public markets as catalytic hubs and conveners of commerce and community.

Laura Hall
Marketing & Development Specialist, Vic Gutman & Associates
Another fresh food option in Omaha will make the downtown area a more attractive place for people to live and work. It’s a gathering place for the community and a place for entrepreneurs.
It will bring traffic to an area of downtown that’s somewhat undiscovered at this point. It will also preserve a building that holds a rich piece of Omaha’s history to be enjoyed by future generations.

“I remember going to the Eastern Market in Detroit as a child and young adult,” he said. “That market brought people together from the city, from the suburbs – black, white, rich, poor, everyone. They all came together. I was attracted, too, by the stories behind the vendors. Many came from generational family farms or businesses. They were always very colorful, interesting. To me, it was the essence of community.”

Vic Gutman plans to create Omaha’s own unique version of public markets like Pike’s Place in Seattle.

In 1987, he attended a national public markets conference that sparked his study of the model.

“I have been researching this for 30 years. I’ve gone to markets all over the country, the world. I have interviewed managers of markets,” he said. “I’ve taken notes about what I liked, what I didn’t like.”

A 1990s feasibility study concluded downtown Omaha wasn’t developed and populated enough to support a market. Besides, Gutman said, “There wasn’t a strong enough movement yet about local food.”

“Well, all that has changed. I think the city is now ready for it because it’s no longer just a niche audience very interested in what they eat and how it’s prepared. The local food movement has really grown and it’s a much wider audience than it used to be.”

A farmers market resurgence laid the groundwork.

“People drive long distances to go to the farmers markets because not only do you have a great choice of fresh local food there but you have a chance to interact with the people who grew your food or baked the bread or made the jams and honey,” Gutman continued. “People also enjoy running into friends and neighbors there. Ingrained in the human species is a need to socialize, a need to be part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s always been true for the farmers markets.”

Consultant David O’Neil with Projects for Public Spaces said a public market “reveals a culture that’s already there.” He said, “By putting the pieces together in the right way, they kind of come together and then people can see it. It creates a sensual scale of accessibility.”

“It’s not just about buying and selling at one of these markets,” O’Neil said, “it’s the social dynamics. It creates an elixir for the local economy that’s almost magical. As the reappearing local economy comes back, people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had that.’ It’s very important to put these components of a local economy back in place and a market not only does it, but it activates all these other dormant roots. Everything starts reconnecting. It’s very exciting.”

Gutman said the Tenth Street Market is designed to tap these diverse roots.

“We are a mission-driven market. Sales for the tenants will be critical to the success of the market but also factoring into the success is that it attracts people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds and from all parts of the city. We want everyone to feel welcome there.”

The renovation of the historic building will preserve and bring back to life a beautiful winding staircase.

The 65,000-square-foot brick market building at 10th and Pierce Streets was once a streetcar barn and postal annex. The sloped, two-story National Register of Historic Places structure features a wood-paneled mezzanine and a grand staircase with scrolled wrought-iron railing.

The crossroads location appeals to Gutman.

“We want to be located in an economically diverse neighborhood and we feel where we are is that. We are close to South Omaha, North Omaha, we are right adjacent to downtown. There’s a boom of development now on South 10th Street but some of the oldest neighborhoods of the city are there, too.

“We want to be able to provide access to fresh food, healthy food, local food and the area we’re in doesn’t have an abundance of options to shop for this kind of food right now. So we will provide that service.”

David O’Neil said a public market’s convergence of producers, suppliers and consumers energizes an area.

“It’s just sort of what happens when you bring people and things together in a way where everybody benefits. With all the different transactions, there’s a lot of energy and innovation in these markets.

“People call it a local economy. It’s like a tributary economy, too, because it connects to the other economies, including the underground economy.”

Gutman said the market will satisfy the expanding interest people have in buying from local makers.

“When you think about food, it’s very personal. The whole experience of shopping and knowing the people who grew or prepared your food is a very nourishing thing that personalizes the experience. And food goes to a very basic need.”

O’Neil, who ran a public market in Philadelphia, finds markets to be “fascinating” intersections of life that become real “assets” to their neighborhoods.

“They make places safer. They’ve very good with social integration and upward mobility. Another core strength of public markets is creating value in the property around them. The power of the market brings in other investors to make more of a market district.”

The right mix of vendors, he said, begets “a critical mass and then you get a few things going on the outside and all of a sudden, wow, there’s this whole other dimension.”

Rendering of the Tenth Street Market provided by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
A market manager will run the Omaha operation.

O’Neil sees good potential in locating Omaha’s market near the revitalized South 10th Street corridor that’s seen an estimated $130 million in reinvestment.

“You’re extending the core of downtown and it’s sort of becoming another node in downtown. Things are happening there and I think the market will accelerate more things happening.”

It’s hoped the market will be a destination stop for visitor-tourists. Shuttles will run to it from downtown.

Gutman believes a key attraction will be the urban vibe.

“Only in an older restored historic building like this could you be successful creating the feeling when you walk in that that market has always been there,” he said. “That’s why we’re keeping the character of the building with its concrete floors, exposed brick walls and steel columns.

“We’re not going to try to make it look upscale or ritzy. We want to keep the vintage industrial feel because that’s what the legacy markets that have been around a hundred years look like.”

For Gutman, it’s all about stirring the entrepreneurial pot for the greater good.

“I want this to be about community. I want this to meet community needs: job creation, access to fresh, healthy, and in many instances, local foods. I want this to be about nutrition education. I want this to be collaboration with multiple other nonprofits.”

Community forums helped curate the market’s features. “We have truly thought this through,” Gutman said.

Now it’s all down to a few big donor asks coming through. He hopes funds are secured to begin construction in the fall.

“The big challenge is getting funders to understand what we’re doing and to have confidence this can succeed and have the impact we’re saying it could have. This is not a homeless shelter, food pantry or typical social service, so it’s new for many funders. We’re doing what we can to help them see and buy into the vision.”

The project will likely be eligible for tax increment financing.

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.


Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

A law degree in hand, Othello Meadows in 2008 returned back to his roots in North Omaha, where a voter registration project that turned out record numbers of minorities led him to feel the need to stay in his home community and turn around decades of decline.

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

Othello Meadows is the executive director of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.

Othello Meadows III rode the Omaha brain drain train to play ball at East Carolina, get his law degree and establish a defense and family law career in Atlanta. Then he returned home to work on a voter registration project that put him in close contact with the North Omaha neighborhoods he grew up in. That 2008 project registered record numbers of minorities. The experience also marked a turning point in the life of Meadows, who found the community he grew up in in such decline that he resolved to stay to try and turn things around.

His new focus on revitalizing North Omaha coincided with the Empowerment Network’s efforts to transform the area. Conversations with local leaders and philanthropists led him to form Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., whose $88 million mixed-use, purpose-built Highlander Village on the site of a former public housing project is now in the final build-out phase.

Jay Palu
Architect, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We have a long working relationship in eastern Omaha in a variety of building types that match what Othello is looking to do. But that’s the easy part.

What Othello provides is the hard part, which is a deep understanding of the community that he’s trying to serve, a love of that community, and a vision for a way to do business.

Meadows’ decision to make a difference in his hometown has resulted in Omaha not only regaining one of its best and brightest, but in reactivating a once dying neighborhood. It may not have happened if he hadn’t been ready for a career change.

“I was kind of tired of what I was doing and wondering where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, and then I got this opportunity to work on a voter registration project here. I had never done anything like that. Everything I’d done had been strictly for-profit stuff. Some part of me felt like I was supposed to go back home doing something more meaningful.

“It turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve made. It was more fun than I had had doing anything in a long time. I thought, I can’t go back to what I was doing before. It meant too much, it felt too good. I wanted to find a way to keep this same feeling.”

It was another feeling, despair, he saw expressed in North Omaha, and his desire to replace it with promise, that ultimately inspired the creation of Seventy-Five North and its game-changing project.

“I lived in other communities that had issues but it still felt like there was hope and positivity there. When I came back to Omaha as an adult it felt so much different than those places. It felt like there was no hope, it felt like there was so much despair.”

Like many Omaha natives, Meadows concluded North O’s long awaited reset needed to happen now.

“When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. People are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We at Alley Poyner feel that a number of neighborhoods — especially vulnerable neighborhoods — have been the subjects of experimentation for a long time. Othello has focused us toward listening to the community, talking to individuals who live there, and producing a different result not by experimenting as much but using communication, outreach, and community meetings to do what we think will work well.

Othello is extraordinarily well-read and traveled, and he’s researched solutions that makes our job easier. The staff, partners, and community leaders he brings together are all from the same mold; After a few brief conversations, you realize when someone isn’t in it at the same level, and Othello constantly brings together partners who are as motivated to make change in this neighborhood as he is.”

The work of the Empowerment Network and others set the stage for 75 North, he said, by generating “a greater awareness about issues on the north side.” “People were actually really starting to talk about what makes this community different, how do we identify the things keeping it in this cycle. There was this burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.”

He said a spate of new North O housing developments delivered “real tangible benefits for people that live in those neighborhoods.”

Then the Sherwood Foundation offered him the opportunity to realize the Seventy-Five North’s ambitious Highlander project.

“I couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime to work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about.”

The project checks several urban revitalization boxes with its high quality, mixed-income housing, birth-to-college education pipeline and onsite support services.

“The whole reason for us being here in this neighborhood is to make sure it gets better,” he said.

Highlander, he added, represents an investment in capital and human resources to address “the very stubborn issue of intergenerational poverty” plaguing the area.

In his 2011 TED talk, “Place as Fate: The Injustice of Geography,” Meadows asked if the place of your birth should determine the quality of your life. He simply wants to help give North O residents the same chances others in the city get to realize their potential.

Meadows advocates positive community changes starting in people’s homes. He and wife Tulani Grundy-Meadows, a Metropolitan Community College professor, are themselves products of stable, two-parent family homes and now model that same same stability as the parents of two boys. For them, strong parents and families are the frontline change agents in neighborhoods and communities.

“The highest form of leadership is motherhood and fatherhood and providing that leadership for your own individual family first and kind of radiating from that,” he said. “That leadership is more internal and helps a community guide its own destiny rather than saying, who’s going to come in from outside and help us fix this?”

He feels grassroots leaders at the community, neighborhood and block level are the real difference-makers. He hopes Highlander and projects like it help people find ways to become “their own change agents in their own communities.” He said, “All these little small actions within a community are what make the sea change. You don’t get it from a guy holding a bullhorn, you get it in lots of little pieces. It’s a real test of the will of the community to say, I’m invested here, this is my neighborhood, this is my community, I’m going to make a lot of really small but right decisions.”

He sees leaders like himself facilitating change.

“The reality is what we may do is give that ball at the top of the hill the slightest of pushes, but everybody has to keep it going. So maybe you start something – maybe you’re a catalyst. I try to think of myself as someone that sparks something that gets something else going.

“True leadership is service and service for a cause. I try to think of myself as somebody who is kind of a vessel for a lot of the hopes and desires for this neighborhood.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
There’s a lot of risk in development. The success of any developer depends on a number of financial target being hit, plus, a number of complicated technical aspects just have to work out. When you start a project, there are things you’ll discover in the process that will delay or defer or modify things. There will be a number of complicated things with procurement, contracts. In the end, it’s still construction which can wear people out. But there’s been a positive vibe since day one for Othello and his team. They’ve all got an attitude that perhaps we can all learn from about how this is really a remarkable project. To a lesser degree, every project we get that touches designers is really remarkable; it’s something new that we get to either create or bring back to life in a renovation. Othello has the attitude that’s steady, confident, supportive, humorous. It’s refreshing; We leave meetings where sometimes we have to make hard decisions feeling treated with respect, kindness, and quite frankly it’s addictive to be around people making positive change and see them enjoy it and ask what else they can do; It’s been really positive for us.”

He took this everyone-has-their-part-to-play philosophy from his late father and other elders.

“He was probably the biggest influence. Then I was fortunate enough to have really good mentors after him.”

With North O on everyone’s radar, more development is happening there now than in the previous few decades combined. Public and private projects on Ames Avenue, 24th Street and 30th Street are tangible signs of progress. Highlander’s North 30th build-out is the result of several funding streams.

“Anytime you’re working in a neighborhood like ours you have to be kind of creative,” Meadows said. “You’re talking about 40 percent philanthropy and then the rest kind of split-up into equal parts: new market tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, regular debt and equity. It’s all broken-up by phase and by housing type and by building, so it’s different with every building on the site.”

The project just got its first tenants moved in. This dream to improve a blighted area where nothing seemed to ever change is now a reality.

Tulani Grundy-Meadows has described her husband’s “wondrous spirit” as a key to his following dreams.

“He seeks wonder in anything he does.”

Meadows once left here, but he’s glad to have returned to help shepherd North O’s revival. He’s heartened that many are fighting the same good fight to fulfill shared dreams for the community they call home.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up. The easiest thing to do is to go somewhere else. I did it for awhile. But it’s good to see there are other people who say, at least for awhile, I’m going to play my role, I’m going to do my part.”

He’s sure he made the right decision to return and is happy to see brick-and-mortar progress, but he’s unclear about the impact he’s having.

“If you care about neighborhoods, and people and creating a better quality of life for families, then you are always wringing your hands about whether or not what you are engaged in is making a real difference.”

North Omaha: Where for art thou?


North Omaha: Where for art thou?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Our fair city has a curious case of tunnel vision when it comes to North Omaha.

What constitutes North Omaha is different depending on who you talk to. Officially or technically speaking, it is one of four geographic quadrants. North O itself is made up of a diverse number of neighborhoods, many of which are not generally considered part of it. For example. most of us don’t include the Dundee business district and surrounding neighborhood around Underwood Avenue as North O when in fact it is. The same for Happy Hollow, Country Club, Benson, Cathedral, Gold Coast, Florence and many others well north of Dodge that have their own stand-alone names, designations, associations and identities. When North O is referenced by many individuals and organizations, what they’re really referring to is Northeast Omaha. For many, North O has come to mean one narrow set of characteristics and conditions when in reality it is much more diverse geographically, socio-economically, racially and every other way than any tunnel vision prism does justice to. Why does this happen so persistently to North O? Well, there are many agendas at work when defining or designating North O as one thing or another. When viewed in a racialized way, North O is suddenly a black-centric district. When viewed as prime development territory. North O’s either a distressed area or a great investment opportunit. When viewed in historical terms, North O’s variously a military outpost, a Mormon encampment, a bustling Street of Dreams or the site of riots and urban renewal disruption and the downward spiral that followed. When measured statistically and comparatively, North O often comes out as the epicenter of poverty, underemployment, educational disparity, STDs, gang violence and other disproportionately occuring ills when in fact in totality, taking into account all its neighborhoods, North O is doing well. When viewed in redevelopment terms, North O is s collection of revitalized commercial and residential areas and of pockets still in need of redos. How you see it doing and where you see it going, what you count as part it or not, the amount of monies that flow in or out and the types of projects, initatives and developments that happen and dont have to do with what people are predisposed to think about it and expect from it. When it comes to North O, your perception of it and engagement with it conforms to your own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, visions, plans, experiences. For some, it represents an avenue of opportunity and for others a plaee of stagnation. Some see it and treat it as a social services mission district, while others see it as a wellspring of commerce, entrepreneurship and possibility. People living there surely have very different takes on it as a community, even on what makes North O, North O. Certainly, people living outside the area have very different takes on it than the people residing there. If there is an essential North O identity it is one of diversity and aspiration, hard work, no frills and pride. North O never has been and never will be just one thing or another. You can reduce to it a tag or a headline and to a segment or a section if you want but that will never reflect the large, complex mosaic of cultures and influences, assets and resources that comprise it. North O ha for too long been stereotyped and compartmentalized, stigmatized and marginalized. It has too long been misunderstood. Instead of only seeing it in its parts, what if we began looking at it as a whole? Maybe if we started thinking in terms of how everything that happens in one neighborhood affects everything else, then perhaps future quality of life development can be more organic and inclusive.

 

St. Cecilia Cathedral - breath taking - 701 N. 40th St. - wonderful concerts held here including the annual Omaha Symphonic Chorus' Christmas in the Cathedral early to mid December.:

 

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"A Beauty Spot, Miller Park, Omaha, Neb."

 

North Omaha contains some of the metro’s oldest, most compelling history. Long established neighborhoods, parks, boulevards, buildings and other public spaces have roots in diverse peoples and events that helped shape the city. Despite this rich heritage, mass media depictions tend to emphasize a narrow, negative view of North O as a problematic place of despair and neglect.

Problems exist, but North O has been a place of great aspirations and successes. One of its historic main drags, North 24th Street, has inspired many names. Jews called it the Miracle Mile. African-Americans dubbed it the Street of Dreams. More informally, it went by the Deuce or the Deuce Four. Other districts within North O, such as Florence, Benson and Dundee, each have their own vibrant histories. These neighborhoods, along with the North 24th and North 30th Street corridors, are undergoing major revivals.

North O’s history extends way back:

A  Great Plains army installation, Fort Omaha, was the site of an historic ruling about the nature of man was rendered in the Trial of Chief Standing Bear. The fort’s grounds are now the main campus for Omaha’s fastest growing higher education institution, Metropolitan Community College, and for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. An annual pow wow is held there.

 

 

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition brought the nation and world to this once frontier outpost turned fledgling city. The Trans-Miss site is where Kountze Park and many stately homes stand.

Pioneering Mormon families trekked to and encamped in what is now North O. They later disembarked there for far western travels to the Great Salt Lake. Area Mormon artifacts and historic sites abound.

Diversity may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to North O, but it is a blend of many different peoples and places. A wide range of immigrants and migrants have settled there over time. Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, Africa-Americans, Africans, Asians, Hispanics.

 

 

Its strong faith community includes a wide variety of Christian churches, Some of the churches have rich histories dating back to the early 20th century. Many older worship places have undergone restoration. Several buildings in North O own national historic preservation status, including the Webster Telephone Exchange that later saw use as a community center and the home of Greater Omaha Community Action until James and Bertha Calloway used grant money to convert it into the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Among the historic spots to visit in North O are Prospect Hill Cemetery where many city founders are buried, and the Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite where slain social activist Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little.

African-Americans built a strong community through their toil as railroad porters and packinghouse workers and through their education in all black schools. North O encompassed a leading vocational school, Technical High. The district continues to support quality public and private elementary schools and public secondary schools. It is home to one of the Midwest’s top post-secondary institutions in Creighton University and to a thriving community college in Metro.

 

 

 

North O is also home to some of the city’s oldest, most distinguished neighborhoods, including Dundee, Benson, Bemis, Gold Coast, Cathedral, Walnut Hill, Kountze Place, Minne Lusa and Florence. Blacks were denied the opportunity to live in many of those neighborhoods until discriminatory housing practices ended.

Bounded by the Missouri River on the east. 72nd Street on the west, Cuming-Dodge Streets on the south and Interstate 680 on the north, North O is a varied landscape of attractive flatlands, hills, woods, parks and tree-lined boulevards. There are promontories and overlooks with stunning views of the bluffs across the river and of downtown.

The area’s fertile soil has produced notables in film (Monty Ross), television (Gabrielle Union), theater (John Beasley), music (Buddy Miles), literature (Wallace Thurman, Tillie Olsen), media (Cathy Hughes), sports (Bob Gibson), finance (Warren Buffett), politics (George Wells Parker) and social activism (Malcolm X). It is where the interracial social action organization the De Porres Club made equality stands a decade before the civil rights movement. Black plaintiffs later forced school integration in the public schools.

North O hosts long-lived and proud chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League as well as dynamic local affiliates of the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Campfire and Girl Inc.

The area does have high poverty pockets but it’s home to hard-working people, many with higher education and vocational training. It encompasses blue collar and white collar professionals, laborers, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. It is a community of families, neighborhoods, small businesses and major manufacturers.

 

 

The ties that bind run deep there. For decades Native Omaha Days has brought together thousands from around the country for a week-long slate of events reuniting former and current residents who share North O as their birthplace and coming of age place.

The infrastructure of this inner city does have its challenges. There is still a disproportionate number of substandard houses, abandoned homes. vacant lots and food deserts. But an influx of projects is adding new residential units and commercial properties that are putting in place stable, sustainable improved quality of life features.

North O is the wellspring and nexus of strong community revitalization efforts such as those of the Empowerment Network, Omaha Economic Development Corporation, Family Housing Advisory Services and Omaha Small Business Network working to strengthen the community.

Redevelopment underway in northeast Omaha is in direct response to decades of economic inertia that set in after civil disturbances laid waste to the historic North 24th Street.hub. Urban renewal also severed the community, thus disrupting neighborhoods, creating isolated segments and diverting commercial development.

 

 

There was a time when North O possessed all the amenities it needed. Back in the day the dynamic entertainment scene acted as a launching pad for talented local musicians and a stopover for top touring artists. It was a destination place with its clubs, bars and restaurants featuring live music. Some of that same spirit and activity is being recaptured again. Harder to get back might be all the professional services that could be had within a few blocks but as more people move back to North O and set up shop, that could change, too.

Today’s revitalized North 24th mirrors similar community building endeavors on North 30th, North 16th, the Radial Highway, Ames Avenue, Hamilton Street, Lake Street, Maple Street and elsewhere. Business thoroughfares and residential blocks pockmarked by neglect are starting to sprout new roots and roofs.

An anchor through it all has been the Omaha Star. It continues a long legacy as a black woman owned and operated newspaper that gives African-Americans a platform for calling out wrongdoers in the face of injustice and celebrating positive events.

Decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, vital voices for self-determination were raised by North O leaders, including Mildred Brown, Whitney Young, Charlie Washington, Ray Metoyer, Dorothy Eure and Ernie Chambers. No one’s spoken out against injustice more than Chambers. He’s been a constant force in his role as a legislator and enduring watchdog for the underdog. His mantel is being taken up by dynamic new leaders such as Sharif Liwaru and Ean Mikale.

 

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, N. 24th and Burdette Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska

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