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Omaha’s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

November 27, 2011 11 comments

The much-ballyhooed rise of Omaha’s culture scene got a major boost with the addition of the city’s first full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, in 2007.  I wrote the following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of Film Stream’s much anticipated opening. It’s an analytical piece that examines the viability of the enterprise in this market and the various things that this art cinema’s founder and director, Rachel Jacobson, put in place to give it sustainability. Because I was a film programmer myself for several years in Omaha I have a certain informed perspective on what the art cinema scene looked like before and after Film Streams.

Five years later, there’s no doubting that Film Streams is a runaway success and that Jacobson is the main reason why.  She’s cannily secured both a strong endowment and membership base from Omaha’s movers and shakers, along with steady grant support, as backing for the world-class programming she and her staff have presented right from the start.  She’s also cultivated two star advisory board members in Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen who help give the venue cachet and credibility well beyond Omaha.  If you’re a local and you haven’t been to Film Streams yet, shame on you.  If you plan to visit, be sure to make it one of your stops.  Payne has been instrumental in the theater hosting some high profile film names at special fundraising events, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderbergh.  My stories on the Dern, Winger, and Soderbergh events can be found on this blog.

The theater’s next special guest, for a spring-summer event, is a genuine cinema legend.  More on that in a few months.  Check out everything Film Streams at http://www.filmstreams.org.

And if you’re so inclined, check out my deep store of film stories on this blog.

Rachel Jacobson outside Film Streams

Omaha‘s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Rachel Jacobson’s Film Streams dream turns reality this weekend. That’s when the non-profit art cinema she’s synonymous with opens in North Downtown. The Ruth Sokolof Theatre at 14th and Webster joins Slowdown, the Saddle Creek Records live music bar that shares the same shell, as the next-big-thing in Omaha culture.

In truth, her dream is one many area cinephiles harbored over time, but she’s the first with the means and the moxie to have gone after it. Audaciously, she’s not hitched the theater to an entrenched cultural institution, such as a university or museum. Instead, Film Streams is an “autonomous nonprofit.” While Saddle Creek doesn’t have an active business interest in it, as the building’s builder, owner, landlord and neighbor, Saddle Creek Records is an institutional partner in spirit.

In some respects, it’s a case of good karma, as Jacobson articulated her vision just as Omaha’s much-discussed synergy of ambitious new art-cultural endeavors took off. Since 2000 the city’s seen come to fruition: various public arts projects; Qwest Center Omaha; the Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival; the Holland Performing Arts Center; the downtown Omaha Lit Fest; the Great Plains Theatre Conference; the Omaha Film Festival and the Blue Barn Music Festival. Slowdown and Film Streams only add to the growing mix of can-do, cosmo, entertainment projects.

With an urban industrial look, from the clean, simple lines of its red brick and black steel exterior to the airy, open, many-windowed loft-style lobby-offices, the building plays off the retro-gentrified face of its eclectic environs. The interior’s exposed precast concrete and steel infrastructure and metal panel-encased windows lend a vaguely 19th century factory vibe. The pastel walls, natural finished Maple woods, Omer Arbel decorative lighting and Bludot furniture, plus a neoclassic Dineresque concessions stand, add a post-modern touch. A huge lithograph on one wall is of iconic Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter (a Jacobson favorite), adding a splash of drama and color to the light, Pop-style lobby.

The two auditoriums, one seating 206, the other 96, are intimate spaces with such requisite creature comforts as high-back, cup-holder chairs, and with such techno features as ample sound panels and multiple projection systems.

Surrounding the building is a mix of manufacturers, warehouses, divey boarding houses, pawn shops, bars, a homeless shelter and a day care center. To the west and north is trendy residential living in Creighton University dorms and Tip Top loft apartments, respectively. Hotels along the emerging Cuming Street Corridor to the north are going up fast. Bohemian spots like the Hot Shops, a few blocks north, are few and far between. The InPlay sports bar and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard are the nearest nice eateries. A couple blocks east is the whole riverfront scene. Traffic to and from the Qwest Center and Civic Auditorium may generate some walk-ins.

The building, set off by its striking black and white marquee and a wide, tree-lined curb, is the subject of much buzz. On a recent afternoon, as workers streamed in and out installing auditorium seats and unpacking assorted boxes in the lobby, passersby on foot and in cars rubbernecked for a glimpse inside.

Film Streams is situated in the projected hub of NoDo, the North Downtown redevelopment district the city’s pinning high hopes on. It could blow up into a destination place or just stagnate. Directly west is a vacant lot overgrown by weeds, a speculative site for a baseball stadium that some consider the missing anchor piece of this puzzle. For now though NoDo has a solid toe-hold and Film Streams is well-positioned as a cool modern throwback — a downtown neighborhood theater attached to the Saddle Creek-Slowdown star.

“Yeah, it couldn’t be a better location, really,” the lithe, long-haired Jacobson said from the Film Streams conference room, with its great view of the cityscape. “I mean, it’s amazing timing…it’s right place, right time, right people involved.”

It’s been a three-year love-fest for Jacobson. With her Cameron Diaz good looks, expatriate return from New York to her hometown, Saddle Creek hook up, Alexander Payne endorsement and philanthropic connections, she’s wrapped her fingers around the Big O!. Per her Revlon-smiling presence in those First National Bank television spots, she’s viewed as a poster girl for the Cool Young Urban Entrepreneurial set that local movers-and-shakers covet.

She’s also an example of the reverse brain drain this state needs; namely, she’s among the long line of Nebraska’s best and brightest to leave, only she’s the exception by coming back to realize her dream here. It’s a Chamber-made PR story.

 

All the attention has her a little queasy.

“This has been so tied to my personality the past two years because so much of it was in my head,” she said, “but now there’s a building, there’s people invested in it, it’s an organization. So I’m hoping it won’t be so synonymous with my name and my identity because that’s a little bit awkward and it also doesn’t bode well for the future…You want it to take on a life of its own and I hope it does.

“I think it’s important it have its own specific voice and personality just like any interesting small business.”

Rare for any start-up, much less a non-profit arts group venturing into unknown territory, i.e. a full-fledged art house in a burg that’s never really seen one, she’s gotten donors to pony up big time. Shaping Omaha’s cool quotient is a seductive thing and may help explain why Film Streams has attracted such widespread support.

“I think a lot people’s motivation for giving and being engaged with this organization is to have an affiliation with everything that’s going on in the arts scene in Omaha and to feel a part of it,” she said.

Her first home run was getting the Saddle Creek Boys, Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel, to build the theater as part of their new NoDo headquarters complex, which includes Slowdown. The Saddle Creek-Film Streams relationship is a case of young urban professionals who share like-minded visions getting together. She lived and worked in New York when she ran into Nansel in 2002 and they laid out their dreams.

“Initially we were talking to Rachel as a friend and trying to help her figure out a place that would work for a theater in Omaha,” Kulbel said. “We had already been on some real estate searches for a similar sized space so we knew what was out there — nearly nothing, unfortunately. There was a fair amount of time that passed between first talking  with her about it and approaching her about the idea of doing it downtown. I was personally very into the idea before we were involved on a business level. I have always seen it as something that would really help out the culture of Omaha, so I have really been into supporting the idea any way I could.”

Kulbel and Nansel serve on the Film Streams advisory board.

Then, with the help of her dad, Kutak Rock chair David Jacobson, she launched a capital campaign. It’s raised $1.7 million for theater operations and an endowment.

“You can’t underestimate the connection thing,” she said in reference to her father and the fact he heads a well-heeled law firm with a history of arts philanthropy. Her family’s standing in the Jewish community has also paid big dividends, including the Sokolof family gift recognized by the theater’s name. Even so, getting old farts to fork over serious dough for an art cinema took some doing in a town unused to thinking of film the way it does music or fine art. 

“It’s not a new concept obviously, but it’s a new concept for Omaha,” she said. “There were definitely people in the beginning who gave me quizzical looks and with whom I had to use examples of older art forms, like theater or opera or symphony, and how these things have had to become nonprofit and how film is the great art form of the 20th century. So it just makes sense to have an organization devoted to celebrating film in that sort of reverential way.”

She feels her New York experience, including stints at Miramax and WNYC, gave her a foundation for thinking and speaking about film as a legit art form.

“In New York film is seen in the kind of light I’m talking about,” she said. “Werner Herzog is a household name. Even more obscure directors are known, not only by people who consider themselves to be film buffs, but just by anyone engaged in the cultural environment of the city. So I knew what needed to be articulated here. I don’t know if I could have done this without having lived there…”

New York’s vital arts community also instilled in her an “attitude that anything’s possible” asdding,”My friends there have been so supportive of this project — they all got it in like two seconds.” She’s found enough cinema sophisticates here to move forward.

Snagging an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Payne and a best-selling author and national public radio personality in Kurt Andersen for her board helped seal the deal.

The Payne name adds sizzle and legitimacy. It opens doors and check books. “I never imagined he would be involved to this degree,” said Jacobson, referring to his curating the inaugural repertory series. “His involvement is so significant.”

 

 

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Alexander Payne has lent his support to Rachel Jacobson and Film Streams

Any skeptics left soon drank the Kool Aid when she secured mucho bucks from such community stalwarts as the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Dick Holland.

Besides getting heavyweights to embrace and fund her project, she’s done her homework, asked all the right questions and put in place a fundraising-membership structure that holds hope this experiment might bear fruit and have a future.

Experiment is the operative word, as no one knows whether Omaha can support an art cinema. Why? Start with there not having been one here before. Sure, there’s the Dundee Theatre, but it often shows titles that also play the cineplexes, it has no education component and its single screen, mid-town location and loyal fan base make comparisons difficult. 

Then ask yourself, what size of an audience really exists for new indie American and first-run foreign pics that outside a few crossover titles a year do little business anywhere? Or for classics now readily accessible via NetFlix or cable?

If anyone knows it’s Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, one of the nation’s longest-lived art cinemas.

“There’s a good reason why there aren’t more art theaters in Lincoln and Omaha,” he said, “and that’s because the markets here really aren’t large enough to sustain them. The only way the Ross has been able to survive over all these years is by having lots and lots of subsidies through grants, donations, memberships.”

Ladely also serves on the Film Streams advisory board.

Just how tough it is to get butts in the seats for art films is revealed by a recent study Ladely’s business manager did. “For every two-week run of a film we show we lose $3,500,” he said. It’s only the occasional art house darling, like The Piano or  Fahrenheit 9/11 that makes a profit, much less a killing. Most lose money. He’s curious to see how the Film Streams repertory program, which features classics, does. He long ago stopped showing older titles as they drew fewer and fewer moviegoers.

If Omaha history is any gauge then there’s a limited pool to be sure. Many alternative film efforts have come and gone. As recently as six years ago the Brandeis Art Cinema tried and failed to be a Dundee Theatre at the Southroads Mall. Nontheatrical causalities in the ’90s included student-sponsored film programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, various  series at the Joslyn Art Museum and a short-lived series at the Blue Barn Theatre. The New Cinema Coop., a part-time presenting group, had a long run in the ’70s-’80s. The Old Market Puppet Theatre and Edison Exchange preceded it. 

Until now, the nearest art cinema has been the Ross, which might as well be Siberia for the few Omahans who trek down I-80 to catch a flick. Distance alone seems to negate head-on competition. Jacobson believes the two venues serve separate markets. Ladely mostly concurs, though he worries about losing the “handful” of Omaha faithful who go there. He sees a bigger conflict between Film Streams and the Dundee, but Jacobson says she’s after different titles than that mid-town theater and is willing to work cooperatively to avoid booking issues.

Danny Lee Ladely, ©photo Lincoln Journal-Star

Likewise, Dundee Manager Matt Brown is willing to consult with Jacobson. It makes sense for them to talk, as each desires exclusive runs. Double bookings at theaters four miles apart would hurt one or both. He said Film Streams is definitely new “competition,” but not one that necessarily “conflicts” with the Dundee.

He feels the two theaters will largely go after different titles, with Film Streams eying more pure art films and the Dundee art films with more mainstream appeal. Jacobson confirms this. Still, there’s bound to be times when the two vie for the same features. The Dundee’s current attraction, Once, would seem to be an Film Streams fit. Film Stream’s opening first-run attraction, the subtitled French film La Vie en Rose, is not standard Dundee material, but who’s to say future titles won’t be?

Where things could get dicey for Film Streams, Brown said, is finding enough art material outside what the Dundee and the AMC chain show that boast the kind of strong reviews and word-of-mouth needed to build audiences. Reviews can make or break things, he said, and only a few titles captivate critics and audiences. Brown said AMC may pose a problem, as it shows many art titles as loss leaders. However, Jacobson said studios/distributors tell her they prefer these titles play in an art cinema that nurtures them rather than in a cineplex that buries them.

It may take time for Film Streams to find its niche. While the Dundee books first-run features months in advance, Film Streams, at least for now, takes a more fluid approach. Jacobson’s eying several titles from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her fall/winter schedule. Her upcoming repertory programs after the Payne series include an Adaptations series and a Nebraska series.

Jacobson’s oft-stated belief, one shared by Brown, that the addition of Film Streams can help grow audiences for art fare and therefore benefit everyone sounds good. But the problem gets back to the relatively few folks who go see films that are obscure, subtitled or both or that can be readily viewed at home. Each tells you the city can enjoy a vital art cinema scene with multiple venues. But with two year-round operations here, it stands to reason one or both will be squeezed in the process.

DUNDEE Theatre - Omaha Ne Open! Photo #2 | by SouthEast Dallas Photographer

Dundee Theatre

To cover a projected $800,000 annual operating budget Film Streams won’t need the volume of bodies and receipts suburban cineplexes generate. Film Streams expects to offset its smaller attendance/take the same way the Ross does — with grants, donations and membership revenue. Through last week Film Streams had sold 500 memberships, which are $50 for individuals and $35 for students/seniors.

“That’s the whole business plan,” she said. “That’s exactly why we diversified our income streams. We plan to keep every single one of those income streams afloat if we can. Box office and concessions and even rentals of our space will only amount to just over 50 percent of our operating budget. Everything else will have to come from membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation gifts…People in the community have to continue to support this in order for us to exist.”

A small staff will keep overhead low. Besides Jacobson, chief programmer and fundraiser, there’s operations manager Ann Ploeger and communications coordinator Casey Logan. Box-office/concessions workers and union projectionists will be contracted per show.

Whereas the Ross is insulated to a degree from poor attendance by its association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Film Streams stands alone, on an island.

“The Ross has an advantage that has really been important in the survival and the success of the program and that is that it’s part of the university,” Ladely said.

On the other hand, Film Streams has formed an endowment, something the Ross, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have. As Ladely noted, it’s true the center’s namesake Mary Riepma Ross donated millions, but all of it went toward building its new center. The Friends of the Ross does have a small endowment.

Just as the Ross is utilized by UNL for classes, Film Streams plans to invite organizations to rent the space for its own or collaborative programs. “We can make it into more than just a movie theater and bring people here who aren’t necessarily cinephiles. That’s going to be a huge part of what we do,” said Jacobson, who envisions partnering with existing events, such as the Omaha Lit Fest or Omaha Film Festival, and with organizations that have a natural cultural connection to Film Streams films/series.

 

 

Film Streams' Feature V - Payne, Forte & Dern - Photo by Chris Machian

Photo by Chris Machian
Public radio host Kurt Andersen interviews the director of the new film “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne, and stars Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Omaha, Neb. Later, another of the film’s actors, June Squibb, surprised the audience by joining the conversation. The event celebrated Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater, Omaha’s non-profit cinema. In excess of 1,600 people attended, and more than $300,000 were raised to support Film Streams programs.

Previous art film efforts in town lacked the cool, state-of-the-art digs and amenities Film Streams delivers. Joslyn’s flirted with cinema but despite its splendor it lacks a bona fide theater space and has never really committed to film. The closest anyone came is when the New Cinema screened alternative fare at the old Center Street Theatre and when the Park IV ran a repertory classics series, but as legit as those venues were their poverty row quarters, budgets and revenues spelled failure.

Jacobson was so intent on doing an art cinema she was at one time prepared to marry it to a Joslyn or do it on the cheap “like squatting in an old warehouse.”

The way things worked out, she’s got the real thing. The Ross in Lincoln is a model for it, as are landmark programs back East, including those at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York’s Film Forum. “Film Forum was the one I looked at most frequently,” she said. “It’s completely autonomous and it’s devoted to film and that’s the mode I really wanted to emulate. That’s how I felt you could be most true to the mission, because if you’re within someone else’s mission then you just have to make too many compromises. So I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t consult people. She bends the ear of veterans like the Ross’ Ladely and her booker, Amherst, Mass.-based Connie White, who programmed the Coolidge Corner and Brattle Theatres in Boston. She also has the advantage of a network of industry contacts, Payne among them, who should help steer major film artists here for lectures, panels, symposiums, retrospectives, et all.

“I’m really excited about the potential for that,” she said.

In terms of anticipation, there hasn’t been anything like this for a new local arts facility since the Holland opened in 2005. A much larger, costlier project, it was the first major new performing venue here in a long time, thus it netted high attention and expectation. Film Streams is not only the first comprehensive art/repertory house here, it’s the first cinema of any kind downtown since the early ‘90s, when the New Cinema converted a storefront at 15th and Davenport.

Unlike Film Streams, the Holland has a built-in fan base as the home to the Omaha Symphony, whose members it markets to. The Holland is also located right in the heart of downtown, not on its northern fringes. Slowdown’s niche indie music model is much closer to Film Streams and its specialized cinema offerings.

The question now is: Will enough people buy memberships and fill seats to keep the theater a viable center that donors want to support? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s focused on “executing” what till now has been a run-through. The dress rehearsals are over and now the screen lights up for real.

“One thing I’m constantly thinking about is sustainability. That’s really the ultimate goal,” she said. “My biggest fear with this is that it will fizzle out in five years. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to…I think we planned this out and we have enough people invested in it that it won’t, but who knows.

“If everyone who says they’re going to be here all the time is here some of the time, then we’ll do OK.”

Jacobson was reminded of what someone asked her recently — what’s it like to do a job that’s your passion? “It was always my dream to do something I loved, but one thing is you can never, ever escape it. You’re always working, because it is me.”

The X-Men Weigh-In on Designing a New Omaha

August 25, 2010 2 comments

Downtown Omaha Skyline

Image by shannonpatrick17 via Flickr

For years Omaha suffered from no image or, if it had one at all, an unflattering image that connoted a dusty prairie town and not the cosmo metropolitan center it has pretensions of being and is in fact becoming. Part of the city’s transformation on the image front is the dramatic remaking of its riverfront and downtown, and more recently, of some of its midtown and inner city districts.  A few years ago I sat down with three men who at one time or another held the title of Omaha City Planning Director to get their input on the emerging new Omaha taking shape, and the following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.

The X-Men Weight-In on Designing a New Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As Omaha embarks on a series of lofty urban developments that promise transforming the city in the most dramatic fashion since the early 1900s boulevard system, The Reader caught up with the burg’s three most recent planning directors for a roundtable discussion on Omaha’s newly emerging face.

Former Omaha City Planning Directors Bob Peters, Marty Shukert and Alden Aust are friends and former colleagues. Meeting in the 11th floor Civic Center office of Peters on the very May afternoon he announced his retirement, Peters looked around at the men who held the same job before him and said, a little wistfully, “This is family.” He suggested the three of them be referred to as “the X-Men.” Aust, now 88, called Peters and Shukert “my two best hires.”

Peters helped oversee the Omaha By Design initiative whose progressive, uniform, community-based New Urbanism planning guidelines and standards have been adopted as master plan policies by the city. He also saw the fruition of long-held plans for redeveloping the riverfront that began with his predecessor and mentor, Aust. Peters and Shukert, another Aust protege, collaborated on 1980s near downtown projects — Town Terrace and Pierce Point — that incorporated features of the New Urbanist design movement. That movement, which advocates pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, integrated village concepts that make dense urban spaces inviting gathering spots and destination points, is at the core of what’s happening here and what’s happened in places like Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis, Minn., two cites that are models for Omaha’s renaissance.

Shukert, a principal and partner with local RDG Planning and Design, served on the Omaha By Design Advisory Committee. He’s contributed to plans for the Millard Town Center Project and prepared urban designs to many other communities.

Aust, whom Peters refers to as “the grandfather of the city.” is credited with making Omaha’s ‘60s-era Return to the River campaign more than a slogan. He pushed through, over much resistance, the creation of the Central Park Mall,  renamed in honor of the late Gene Leahy, one of six mayors he served under. Love it or hate it, the mall, which is slated for extensive renovations, reshaped and reenergized a decaying downtown and gave Omahans a new perspective on what their city could be. More importantly, the mall was the first conduit to what eventually became, thanks to additions that extended it eastward to 10th Street and later linked it to the Heartland of America Park, Omaha’s new public connection to the riverfront. As recently as a decade ago, the same riverfront that’s now home to Rick’s Boatyard Cafe, Louis and Clark Landing, Qwest Center-Hilton, the National Parks Division headquarters, the Gallup training complex and newly under-construction high-rise condos, was an industrial wasteland.

The X-Men have been involved in a decades-long process, whose latest and most dynamic chapter is the grassroots Omaha By Design effort, to reimagine and retrofit the city as a true urban center drawing people and activity together. Much of what the X-Men have worked towards is articulated in recently announced plans for multi-million dollar developments around Mutual of Omaha-Turner Park, the Ak-Sar-Ben property and north downtown or No-Do. Similar revitalization is being realized on the riverfront and the north-south sides of town.

They’ve seen Omaha stagnate and sprawl, aspire and achieve. They’ve been there for its missteps and inspirations. While not in the city’s direct employ anymore, the X-Men act as consultants. Each shares a personal and professional interest in what’s gone on before in urban design here and each is curious about the shape of things to come. Their strong views on what Omaha can be reflect their passion for the city. They’re optimistic about the prospects of Omaha finally metamorphosing into the cosmo cityscape it’s been haphazardly flirting with for generations. They feel its maturation, in aesthetic design terms, has the city poised to shake off the image problem that’s always dogged it. They say it’s a matter of confidence.

“Image is a very hard thing to change,” Shukert said. “You don’t have control over it. But it’s not impossible. There are places that have transformed their image. Baltimore, for example. Indianapolis. Frankly, our image is that we are a cow town. And there will be people in various parts of the country who will have a hard time thinking of us as anything different. Part of what’s important is our own image of ourselves. When we stop seeing ourselves as that way, but as a different and transforming place, then that image is going to be communicated to other places.”

“I think it’s happening now,” Peters said. “First of all, there’s a pride I’ve never seen exhibited so visibly in this community. It’s been a difficult romance, but residents have finally fallen in love with Omaha. Some of the events along the new riverfront have a big city atmosphere. That doesn’t happen except in those circumstances when things click. And things click for a reason. I mean, we’ve got new clothes. Great cities are defined by their cultural arts and the corporate leaders in this community recognized that quite some time ago, and what’s been developed here is significant and wonderful for visitors and residents. We have the Western Heritage, the botanical gardens, the zoo, the Joslyn, the Qwest Center, the new Holland Performing Arts, the riverfront. We’ve got great neighborhoods. We’ve got great bones to build on. They’re environments and experiences that are probably unexpected, and I think that’s what Urbanism is about.”

“I don’t know who it was that defined Urbanism as a place that provides a high probability of unplanned positive encounters,” Shukert said, “but that’s it.”

Historically, Omaha’s city-led design approach was an isolated process with no overarching, codified standards and little public input. That resulted in Omaha having some of the barest, “ugliest streets,”imaginable Peters said. Basic elements of good design were ignored. “City streets were put in” with no corresponding plan “to plant trees and to do median landscaping,” he said. “Simple, inexpensive measures that would make a world of difference.” That’s changed with Omaha By Design and the related Destination Midtown. These corporate-neighborhood association led-actions have opened the process up to dialog, review and goal-setting by everyone from small business merchants to CEOs to home owners in making things like streetscape improvements and green spaces a matter of policy.

“The sea change with Omaha By Design is that it’s privately funded. It is a buy-in by the private business and neighborhood community as opposed to a planning director saying, ‘Oh, I think we’ll put $100,000 in the budget this year and do an urban design plan.’ And here’s why that’s important: Not that many years ago the standards proposed in that process would have been dismissed as socialism or as unnecessary frills or maybe as good enough for the East Coast but not something we need in Omaha,” Shukert said. “Now, we’ve evolved to the point where it is the corporate community and not pointy-headed planners who are in fact demanding and enforcing those standards. And when that happens those standards actually become law and owned by the community.”

To Shukert’s dismay, not everyone embraces Urbanism. He said, “Some question spending $25 million on the proposed Missouri River pedestrian bridge, but spending $120 million on an elevated (West Dodge) expressway is no big deal.” “To get through two stop lights,” Peters said disdainfully. “That’s the most God-awful expenditure I’ve seen in this city in a long time,” added Aust.

“There are projects and features that do tend to drive us apart and be the enemy of Urbanism,” Shukert said, “and those things are obstacles. And sometimes they’re our own fault. We still in this city live very far apart. We have people who’d like to live further apart yet. Who’s image is very anti-urban — it’s an acreage out in the country. There are neighborhoods that believe a commercial development or a lower-priced home will depress property values, and so they build walls.”

Shukert said those that question “the need” for something like the pedestrian bridge to link Omaha and Council Bluffs just don’t get it.

“Chicago didn’t need the Millennium Park. New York didn’t need Central Park. The St. Louis Arch wasn’t necessary. But, in fact, those elements make a city great. We’re getting to the point where we’re realizing the value of making the place great as opposed to functional. One thing we’ve seen clearly is an elevation of community standards, expectations and acceptance. A critical point has been reached. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re getting there,” he said.

What set the stage for this heightened design awareness here?

“For one thing, lifelong or long-term Omahans have traveled and seen places they like and wonder why those places don’t exist here,” Shukert said. “Then there’s the demand for a higher standard that people new to the city bring from other places they’ve lived. Finally, some of the major corporations, like First National Bank and the Omaha World-Herald, have made huge investments in top quality design. They, in effect, said, We’re establishing this standard that everybody else should live up to, and so they become standard-bearers.”

“I think it’s a reflection of what the community has always desired but there wasn’t  a discussion that became so public as to coalesce and congeal those desires,” Peters said. “The transformation of the riverfront was the linchpin of that. It focused everybody’s attention on a relatively few projects that changed the physical makeup of the city forever.”

Shukert described “three transformational projects, all related to Mr. Aust’s original vision of downtown Omaha,” that showed the way. “The first of those was the Gene Leahy Mall. You don’t know the struggle to get that thing done. When it was finished people said, ‘This doesn’t look like Omaha.’ It was the project that showed Omaha it could be something else. Project number two was the ConAgra campus. There are still those who argue whether it was the right design or the right use for that land or whatever, but it certainly changed the nature of the debate and, for the first time. it engaged the city with its river.

“The third project that really kicked things into high gear was the riverfront development north of the I-80 bridge — the Qwest Center, Hilton and everything else. It’s begun to make downtown Omaha a west Omaha-type development real estate market that is a self-sustaining market people invest equity in.”

The X-Men agree that proposed new developments, along with others envisioned around the 72nd Street corridor and a stretch of inner city Dodge, fit nicely into the new Urbanism scheme, which isn’t so new after all.

“New Urbanism is to some degree very skillful packaging of what always used to be,” Shukert said, “and that’s Urbanism. Neighborhoods like Dundee and Benson and some elements of Millard and Florence are in some ways a model for what New Urbanism is trying to recreate. There are certain patterns that describe an urban environment. They deal with public space, with connectedness, with scale and intimacy, with how people experience a neighborhood or district in its variety of social functions and interactions. And there are many ways to skin that cat.”

Being sensitive to and taking advantage of an area’s unique attributes, he said, is key. ”Different solutions are appropriate in different areas.” If there’s a unifying principal, however, it’s connectedness. “That involves having civic spaces where people meet each other as opposed to being compartmentalized in cars or having a mix of uses not cordoned off one from another,” Shukert said. “Ultimately what we want to try and be about is the creation of great places and experiences that are connected to one another.”

Shukert said a lack of design standards allowed the suburban strip mall scene to get out of hand here — in areas like 132nd and Center and 144th and Maple. “Despite tremendous investment, they developed in a sort of piecemeal, separated way. They never quite came together as a destination” He said a response to those mistakes is seen in projects like Village Pointe, Shadow Lake and Twin Creek. “While not perfect, they attempt to pull elements together. It’s a realization that some commercial developments really are activity centers and really need to function that way and should not just be individual, separated buildings that surround parking lots and that impose bewildering traffic patterns.”

Omaha missed an opportunity to create connections on an epic scale by never completing the original park and boulevard system designed by Horace Cleveland and by not building new linkages between neighborhoods and attractions. “It’s important we don’t make that mistake again,” said Shukert. “A characteristic of a great city is a progression of districts and features that make it a rich experience. That’s why things like the pedestrian bridge and trails are important, because they link things together.” Even “greening the streets,” he said, can give a sense for “being part of a greater whole” and “reinforcing” core aesthetic design elements.

While the park-boulevard system wasn’t fully realized, Peters said, what there is of it provides a “seamless” approach that anchors areas and give them identities. “The health and vibrancy of the neighborhoods north and south along that network is directly related to that system. It created interconnectedness and an image.”

Now on the drawing board is nothing short of a complete make-over of the city, including mammoth redevelopment plans, streetscape improvements and public works projects. Old neighborhoods and business districts are in line for rebirths. There’s no telling yet which projects will reach fruition. Developers and funding must be found for some.

“It’s never been done in any city on a comprehensive basis. Other cities have done a downtown plan or an open space plan or a riverfront plan, but no city has taken from the civic, neighborhood and green perspectives and remodeled and created what that city is going to be from that point forward,” Peters said.

“One of the only other purely privately funded planning efforts of this magnitude I can think of is the 1909 plan of Chicago,” Shukert said. “And what did that accomplish? It accomplished the city of Chicago as we know it today.”

The X-Men said developments and amenities in Omaha will still be in isolation from each other unless an organic linkage solution is found. Public transportation is one possibility. Alden Aust proposed an elevated rapid transit light rail system back in the ‘70s. It found scant support then and later attempts to revive such plans fizzled. Studies show the costs to build and maintain a system of that sort is prohibitive in a market where projected ridership numbers are deemed too low to sustain it. The most likely form a connecting public transit system will take, Peters said, is a trolley system like those floated in recent years.

“If it happens,” Peters said, “the first modeling of it will be to link destinations-attractions. Rosenblatt with the zoo with the botanical gardens with Western Heritage with Joslyn with the Old Market with the Qwest Center. By doing that, you’re creating the boulevard system of the 21st century. The old system connected pastoral locations that became a network of parks where eventually neighborhoods developed and linked to it. If the corporate leaders ever decide to support a transit system linking destinations, the neighborhoods adjacent to those attractions will explode. It will be a renaissance along those streets.”

Omahans may not have long to wait, Shukert said, if plans for No-Do come to life in the mix of restaurants, live music venues, movie theaters, shops and residential units that Blue Stone Development and other developers envision there. “It’s building a neighborhood that connects the Qwest Center and the riverfront with Creighton (University). It’s a linkage concept entirely. Pedestrian and transit facilities then become the spine that can create stronger neighborhoods.”

Peters acknowledges Omaha has moved slowly in reaching an urban design consensus that heralds reformation, but he said acting cautiously has let it study what similar-sized cities have done right and wrong. Now, he said, an Uber Omaha is primed to arise. “We’re going to surprise the hell out of people”

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