- Associated Press - Sunday, December 27, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - An electricity plant that went dark about 30 years ago is coming back online - reborn as a gigantic waterfront apartment complex that would power Omaha’s ongoing effort to revamp its downtown riverfront.

The project, on an 11.5-acre site, is a key link between the Little Italy neighborhood to its south and the ConAgra Foods campus to its north.

Instead of a decrepit, hulking brick structure that harks to the city’s industrial past, the 214-unit apartment complex - dubbed “The Breakers” in homage to its life as a power plant - will open up a long-neglected piece of land along the west bank of the Missouri River.

Leading the charge is NuStyle Development, the company that already has changed the city’s urban fabric with a slew of other rehabbed residential and commercial buildings, including the old Ford warehouses south of the Old Market, the former Northwestern Bell headquarters off 19th and Dodge and the old Northern Natural Gas building.

Now, NuStyle has turned its attention to the former Omaha Public Power District plant that churned out its last electrical current decades ago. In addition to market-rate housing, NuStyle envisions park and bike-trail connections - more pieces in the city’s back-to-the-river puzzle.

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1Mx6dId ) reports that the nearly $40 million housing complex should be completed in 2017. The parkland and trail still require more planning with the city, said Todd Heistand, who owns NuStyle with his wife, Mary. The trail would link with a path that now ends in the Heartland of America Park on one side and near Pacific Street on the other side.

The Breakers apartments - with a rooftop pool, industrial-style courtyard and underground parking - will dramatically alter the previously forlorn piece of property.

“Any time you can add people to the riverfront 24/7, it makes it better and a lot safer for the city overall,” Todd Heistand said. “It’s going to be spectacular.”

City planners expect the repurposed complex to provide a “pleasant transition” between Little Italy and downtown.

The project “takes an old, underutilized, challenging industrial site along the riverfront and makes it productive again,” said Omaha Planning Director James Thele.

Flanking its northern boundary is the ConAgra campus, a separate 30-acre tract also poised for change as the Fortune 500 company dismantles its Omaha corporate headquarters and shrinks its local presence.

ConAgra hasn’t revealed how its offices around the Heartland of America Park might be reorganized. But shifts on that campus and the NuStyle property promise to usher in a different look along the riverfront.

First announced nearly two years ago, the power plant redevelopment ran into delays. Recently reignited, it’s grown in scope and price.

Heistand called the Breakers his “most challenging” project in 30 years. For starters, there were no traditional floors - only a skeleton of iron grates that former power plant workers walked around on.

Unlike NuStyle’s other projects, most of which converted old offices to apartments, construction crews on The Breakers essentially started from scratch to build an internal structure for the individual apartment units.

The team also will remove a huge diesel fuel tank and lop off height from another to reconfigure the entrance to the complex.

Earlier, crews spent months getting rid of asbestos, tons of iron and boiler innards. Complicating progress has been Omaha’s multibillion-dollar sewer-separation project. Part of the NuStyle site - for now - is taken up by the sewer project.

According to city records, the buildings on the site were constructed roughly between 1920 and 1951. Historically, they were part of a complex of buildings dating back to 1889, when the first coal-fired power station was built on the site.

The earliest portions of the complex were removed in the 1970s, and the plant was decommissioned about 30 years ago, Heistand said. For the last few decades, the plant sat derelict while OPPD paid security and maintenance costs and used portions for miscellaneous purposes.

When OPPD put the property up for sale in 2013, NuStyle was the only firm to bite with its $100,000 bid.

NuStyle is seeking up to $6.2 million in tax-increment financing funds for The Breakers. City planners expect the $38.5 million project to create 200 construction jobs and three full-time apartment management positions.

The buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but city records said the project wouldn’t seek historical tax credits because it would be too costly or problematic to maintain certain historic characteristics: things like glass block windows and a great hall that was the home to a turbine; the hall won’t be kept fully open, as historic credits would have required.

Monthly apartment rents will range from about $1,000 to $1,600.

Visitors will approach the residential campus on a revamped stretch of road. The road is to extend into a planned roundabout that will feed a ConAgra parking lot and lead to the trio of industrial buildings-turned-residences.

Designed by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, the project consists of three main structures:

—Standing 10 stories will be the “boiler plant,” to be renovated into 104 apartments with high ceilings, industrial-style windows and decks. This dominant section is to contain some parking, elevators and tenant amenities, including a top-floor swimming pool and pavilion with walls that can open in warm weather.

— The “switchgear building” stands two stories, and each of its 24 units (a mix of one, two and three bedrooms) is designed to have a two-level living area.

— The “turbine hall” will feature roof trusses, two underground parking levels with about 200 stalls, and four levels of housing containing 89 units. The roof will be removed from the middle of the building to create an “industrial courtyard.”

OPPD will retain about 6 acres of adjacent property to the west of the site that’s filled with electrical switches, generators and other equipment. It serves as a backup if ever downtown needs an electrical boost.

Much of that OPPD property will be screened by landscaping and improvements on a street leading to the apartment complex, said Bob Heffernan, NuStyle’s site superintendent.

Although a separate downtown master plan talked about connecting the road to the river and creating a new Riverfront Drive South, that won’t happen as part of the Breakers project.

“Various complications prohibited connectivity of Leavenworth Street directly to the river,” Thele said in a report to the City Planning Board. For now, the street is to be improved to create a “welcoming entrance” to the apartment site.

Railroad tracks separate NuStyle’s land from the Missouri. But city planners and Heistand said they envision improvements to allow the future bike and pedestrian path along the riverbank that would complete a trail from Bellevue in the south to NP Dodge Park in the north.

“It’s that whole back-to-the-riverfront concept,” Heistand said. “The bike path would be a big piece.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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