When the nearly 10-acre Central Park Mall was dedicated in 1977 (it was officially named the Gene Leahy Mall in 1992), it was considered a jewel of downtown Omaha.
“At that time there was nothing like it,” says Brook Bench, director of City of Omaha Parks, Recreation and Public Property. People marveled at the green space and manmade lagoon stretching from 10th to 15th Streets between Farnam and Douglas, surrounded by tall buildings and placed right in the midst of the downtown hustle and bustle.
“We have pictures of what it looked like—but it did not look like that lately,” Bench says. It’s a credit to the original planners that the mall held up for nearly four decades, he explains, but over the years, design flaws have become evident.
“The biggest challenge for the mall is that 85 percent of the ground down there is sloped. It’s a very large park, but it’s not very useable. And it’s an absolute nightmare to keep that place clean, because everything blows in and nothing goes out,” Bench says.
The sloped design that leaves the lagoon and most of the park below street level had also contributed to deterioration of the shoreline, plus walking paths presented trip hazards and multiple blind corners. And aging and weathering created inevitable deterioration of fixtures and features. But it was water quality that served as the impetus for renovation, Bench says.
“It was so silted in that the depth of the water was only this deep in places,” Bench says, spanning his hands to indicate less than a foot. The lagoon drains to the river, but has no natural inflow, he adds, and the buildup of silt was exacerbated by sustained drought two summers ago. Compounding the problem further, the integrity of the lagoon’s bed had long been compromised and the lagoon needed to be regularly fed by city water.
The much-needed, nearly $1.8 million renovation was finally kick-started by a $600,000 water quality grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Nebraska and augmented by Parks department capital improvement program (CIP) money.
“We have all our planners and our managers and we try to prioritize what needs to be done next,” Bench says of the CIP budget. “And most of the time it is a need—we need to do this, we need to fix this.”
Bench’s philosophy of preservation and maintenance before all else makes sense considering that the CIP budget must encompass the city’s hundreds of properties—community centers, pools and water playgrounds, golf courses, parks and playgrounds, athletic fields, tennis courts, recreational trails, dog parks, skate parks, marinas and more.
“We probably wouldn’t have done it without getting that grant because it was such a huge amount,” Bench says of the Gene Leahy Mall project. Other enhancements such as an expanded playground, public restrooms and a covered entertainment space may come later through private funding, he adds, but he sums up the most urgent priorities as “deeper, cleaner, safer.”
Work started in March 2013. A temporary road had to be built so vehicles and equipment could access the lagoon for pumping, dredging and shoreline stabilization.
“Now we have a bentonite liner, which is a clay liner, so we’re hoping to capture water and not have to keep pumping city water into it.” Bench says.
Crews also built a new trail around the lagoon and installed new lighting, he adds. The restoration was completed this spring, and visitors are immediately noticing the improvements.
“It’s more airy and so it’s not like you’re down in the mall. There’s more visibility,” Bench says. “It’s about just having a nice place where people can walk through.”