- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A new nonprofit group led by some of the city’s largest employers has been created to speed up the growth of midtown Omaha, including pressing for construction of a modern streetcar line.

Midtown 2050 Corp. aims to “maximize midtown’s potential” by connecting its existing corporate and university campuses and neighborhoods, and filling in the blanks between them with new developments built to complement each other and support an urban lifestyle, the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2lo8RKV ) reported.

The group has a plan, Midtown Vision 2050. It’s big on a new version of an idea that’s been around for years: a modern streetcar line down Farnam Street that would connect midtown, downtown and the riverfront.

The plan also calls for redesigning midtown streets to make them friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. It seeks changes in city zoning regulations for midtown to create better design standards and more cohesive neighborhoods.

“Midtown Vision 2050 is a visionary plan that guides growth and redevelopment in midtown Omaha for the next several decades,” said Ken Cook, chairman of Midtown 2050’s board. He is president of East Campus Realty LLC, the Mutual of Omaha subsidiary behind Midtown Crossing.

Midtown 2050 is backed by Mutual of Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Nebraska Medicine, Kiewit Corp., Creighton University and the philanthropic nonprofit Heritage Services. The Midtown Neighborhood Alliance also has a representative on the nonprofit’s board.

Midtown 2050, which filed as a Nebraska nonprofit in December, is sort of a next-generation Destination Midtown, for those who remember that effort that helped reawaken the area.

The organization hired former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford as its president and executive director in January, after his term ended as Nebraska’s 2nd District representative in Congress.

The idea for the new organization was born about two years ago. Mutual of Omaha and UNMC leaders got together to discuss developments they had on the drawing board, Cook said. Those are Mutual’s Turner Park East, which will be east of Midtown Crossing, and the university’s redevelopment of the former Omaha Steel Casting site near Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Street.

“It became clear pretty quickly that really what was missing was a cohesive overall vision for midtown generally that could inform their development and our development, and other developments that might want to come to the midtown area,” Cook said.

UNMC and Mutual hired a planning firm from Florida that specializes in the New Urbanism design movement to study midtown Omaha and draft “broad new goals” for its future. DPZ Partners drew up a concept for the 5 square miles of Omaha that stretch from downtown to Dundee. The area goes roughly from 20th Street on the east to 48th Street on the west, and from Center Street on the south to Cuming Street on the north.

Ashford has set to work promoting the group’s vision and trying to rally support for its components, including a long-discussed modern streetcar line that would connect midtown and downtown Omaha.

Ashford said the group sees a more robust redevelopment of midtown as crucial to metropolitan Omaha’s economic progress. Not only would it generate more activity and tax revenue in a half-empty part of the city’s urban core, but Ashford said it’s needed to attract talented young employees and entrepreneurs.

He said the cities with which Omaha competes have been creating the type of neighborhoods and transit systems favored by millennials and envisioned by Midtown 2050.

He pointed to UNMC’s Buffett Cancer Center and the major corporations in the area. “They have to compete for the best talent they can keep for a long time, and that means young people,” he said.

He said Omaha can make a pretty good case for itself now. But it could make a better case if it converted the overabundance of surface parking lots in midtown Omaha into nice places to live, work and play.

Ashford met with Mayor Jean Stothert last week to present the plan. She said she thinks that the overall vision is great and would be good for the entire city, and that she supports it.

“Now that we have their vision and their plan, we want to work with them as closely as we can to help them make their vision a reality,” Stothert said.

That includes the streetcar.

Stothert said the city has completed a financial feasibility study that was in the works before Midtown 2050 came along. She said the study offers a number of options to pay for the construction costs - estimated at between $150 million and $160 million - and the estimated $7.5 million annual operating expense of a streetcar.

Stothert didn’t offer details on those options but said the construction cost would include private money, and that she believes a streetcar can be built without raising taxes.

“I wouldn’t support it if I didn’t believe that,” Stothert said.

City Councilman Chris Jerram, whose district includes much of midtown, said he supports the plan as well. He said he is pleased that neighborhood groups are being included in the process.

Jerram noted that details on funding a streetcar and street improvements are yet to be worked out. But he said he supports the vision, and he believes the city would be wise to be a partner in it.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” Jerram said, “because included in that group are so many that have participated in major projects in our city in the past.”

The engineering firm HDR estimated the midtown portion of a streetcar line would cost between $50 million and $70 million. HDR estimated other public costs, including converting a number of one-way streets to two-way streets, would cost an additional $70 million or so.

Stothert said those projects could be worked into city plans and budgets over a number of years.

Ashford is trying to build community support for the vision: a more densely populated, walkable, bikeable urban center connected by mass transit to nearby neighborhoods, employers, shops, nice parks and the rest of the city - the type of place that has been cropping up and attracting young people in cities around the nation.

Midtown Omaha has come back to life since some of the same players launched Destination Midtown in 2003. The Midtown 2050 proponents say they want to build on the momentum of Mutual’s Midtown Crossing, UNMC’s Buffett Cancer Center and other projects, redevelopment in the Blackstone District and new apartments and renovations in surrounding neighborhoods.

But Midtown 2050 backers worry that the area’s growth is too slow, too disjointed and too small. They see a streetcar as the engine that would accelerate the pace by enticing developers to build more - and enabling them to build taller buildings, because they wouldn’t need as much parking.

The two- and four-story apartment buildings popping up in the area are good, Ashford said. But he said erecting some eight- to 10-story buildings in the right places would produce the population density needed to make the neighborhood really take off.

Cook is concerned that midtown could miss its moment if the pace doesn’t pick up. Midtown is still too long on parking lots, he said, and too short on people.

So even though the group’s name says “2050,” its members have a sense of urgency about making things happen soon.

“There are things we are advocating for today that would unlock the progress that’s in the vision plan,” Cook said.

The plan does not propose a list of specific projects. It’s more a concept of what kinds of things could be built in what places and how they could fit together.

For example, the plan envisions “neighborhood nodes” with shops, restaurants and offices blending into residences.

The plan notes that some exist already, such as the Blackstone District along Farnam Street, 33rd and California Streets and Midtown Crossing.

It suggests others, such as a Saddle Creek Station on the former Steel Castings site southwest of Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Street.

“The 25- to 30-acre site is envisioned as a compact and walkable urban center and the western terminus of the proposed streetcar,” the Midtown 2050 plan says.

It would include housing aimed at UNMC students and employees, shops, restaurants and a plaza.

The plan envisions new or expanded neighborhood business districts elsewhere in midtown. And it suggests gussying up others, such as 33rd and California Streets, with streetscape improvements.

The plan calls for converting a long list of one-way streets in the area to two-way traffic. Those include sections of Turner Boulevard, Park Avenue and Farnam, Harney, 24th, 25th, 31st and Leavenworth Streets.

People need look no further than the Blackstone District near 40th and Farnam to see the value of converting a street to two ways, Ashford said.

The plan also calls for narrowing several streets that are too wide for the traffic they now serve, and adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Creating a bicycle network is listed as a short-term goal on the plan’s implementation section.

Its “immediate priorities” include creating a tax-increment-financing district for the entire area, changing city zoning regulations to require higher design standards and accelerating streetcar implementation, including by rebuilding the streetscape along the route.

“The streetcar is a critical element; it’s a necessary element of the redevelopment, but it’s not the only one,” Ashford said.

He likened the effort to the development of the Old Market decades ago, and more recently the convention center and arena.

“It’s not only about making midtown look better,” Ashford said. “It’s about becoming a fully redeveloped area and contributing to the betterment of the entire community.”

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

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