Tag Archives: building

Daylight Factory

July 16, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Daylight may be the most prominent feature of the Rail and Commerce Building at 10th and Mason streets. The banks of windows on every floor—including the lower level—were designed in the style of a “daylight factory,” a multi-story concrete frame industrial building that proliferated in the early 20th century, and that’s how they were restored. 

The multitude of windows was not happenstance. “We recognized the daylight as a resource worth harvesting,” says Jon Crane, president of Boyd Jones, the company responsible for renovating the building. “You need an environment conducive to attracting, retaining, and hiring quality people. Environment matters.” 

Crane motions through the conference room window to the Boyd Jones’ open-space office area. “This is a very collaborative space, which is an important value of our company. This space is very open, yet not disruptive.”

The open floor plan was a feature of the original building. The first floor Boyd Jones office was once meant for mail trucks—they drove right through the center of the building, from the 10th Street bridge to what was then the 11th Street bridge. Downstairs, in what is now the Commerce Village, there was a track so railcars could go through. When the building opened in 1926, it received nearly all the mail for western Iowa and Nebraska. It served in that capacity until the 1970s, when the existing post office next door replaced it.

Vacant for most of the years since then, the Rail and Commerce Building was condemned to be torn down when Crane and his team found it. “It was a cold, dilapidated shell on the inside. But the building itself, the structure was very sound,” Crane says. “We restored the façade and we completely cleaned out the inside and made it new. It was a historical preservation project, so we worked with the Nebraska Historical Society and also the National Park Service. We were able to preserve a lot of the neat historical aspects of the building.”

Building a new edifice for Boyd Jones’ headquarters was only a fleeting thought for Crane.

“It’s very important to remember where you come from—to embrace the past, but adapt it to the future,” Crane says. “Change doesn’t have to mean destruction. It can mean evolution.”

The location in Little Italy attracted Crane. He guessed it would attract others as well. The lower level of the Rail and Commerce Building houses the roughly 20,000-square-foot Commerce Village coworking space. With 16 private suites and 50 desks, it offers a variety of systems for renters: closed-door offices, set desks, floater desks, or one-day drop-ins. 

For the planning of Commerce Village, Crane brought in Matt Dougherty, who had prior experience with collaborative workspaces. His eight spaces at the Ford Building at 10th and Dodge streets “went so fast it became clear there is a real need for this type of incubator space,” says Dougherty. In his insurance business, he’s seeing a sort of “small business renaissance”—a trend of wanting to work for yourself rather than someone else.

That fit just right with Boyd Jones. “One of the values of our company is entrepreneurship,” Crane says. “We wanted an office space that would attract entrepreneurs and start-up companies—a collaborative atmosphere for collaborative people.”  

That energy drew Verdis Group, according to managing partner Craig Moody. “We’re excited for the opportunity for partnering with other organizations here,” he says.  

The daylight was another huge draw. An unexpected benefit? “The trains going by,” Moody says, grinning. “Sometimes I feel like an 11-year-old boy.” 

Verdis Group promotes sustainability, so they were pleased to find the building was equipped with solar panels. There’s also ample bike parking, as well as private showers and changing rooms so employees can freshen up after pedaling to work—or using the Rail and Commerce Building’s own fitness center. 

Conference rooms; access to a printer, mail, and package services; and a stocked kitchenette round out the amenities. Crane explains, “We really want people to be comfortable, like you’re in your [home] office.”


Visit boydjones.biz or commercevillageomaha.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Designing and Building a Life in Omaha

June 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Wanted: beautiful minds.

Omaha architectural and engineering firms continue to hang the “help wanted” sign, roll out the welcome mat, and host job fairs, looking to snag that rarest of breeds: an employee who uses both sides of the brain equally, combining the practicality of a physicist and mathematician with the soul of an artist. In other words, young architects and architectural engineers are hot commodities in a leading job market.

Low interest rates and demand for new development (which shows no signs of ebbing) keep employers busy looking for qualified applicants. Where do they find the necessary numbers? Right in their own backyard.

“Certainly the job market in Omaha within architecture and engineering is very, very, very strong,” emphasizes Christopher Johnson, a vice president and managing principal at Leo A Daly, part of the big three of Omaha architecture firms, along with DLR and HDR. “Even when you look locally at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, PKI (Peter Kiewit Institute), or Nebraska-Lincoln, the interns and the graduates are secure in their employment by the holiday season, before they go home for their holiday break. That’s a lot earlier than what we would normally see.”

Top-notch schooling—the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, and the Kiewit Institute and the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction on the university’s Omaha campus— provides Omaha firms with a locally grown crop of well-grounded, technically advanced job candidates who work well with others and possess problem-solving skills.

“In Omaha, we typically hire between 10 and 12 architects and engineers every year,” says Johnson. In addition, Leo A Daly’s internship program places about four students on the architecture/interior side and the same number on the engineering side. 

How do the salaries compare?

“Entry-level job salaries are competitive in the Omaha market because we have a very competitive spirit among all the private firms here,” Johnson says. “But when you look at the national picture, you might say they look a little lower.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for architects nationally is $76,100. Omaha’s lower numbers reflect a geographical lower cost of living.

While many graduates take their sheepskin and leave for larger salaries in larger cities like Chicago, Boston, or Dallas, an impressive percentage chooses to stay close to family and friends. Two young professionals who made a conscious decision a decade ago to stay rooted in Nebraska have seen their stars ascend on a local and national level.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering in Omaha, and Andrew  Yosten, managing engineering principal and director of mechanical engineering of HDR’s architecture practice in Omaha, both found their calling early. In many ways, they mirror each other’s lives.

“My uncle owned a construction company and I enjoyed building things, but I was always pulled toward engineering,” Yosten, 34, says of his teenage years growing up in West Point, Nebraska. “I happened to stumble across a pamphlet on architectural engineering. None of the other engineering fields really appealed to me until I read that pamphlet.”

Guy comes from a place even smaller than West Point. In fact, Mullen, Nebraska, population 492, is the only town in Hooker County, nestled in the state’s beautiful Sandhills. Like Yosten, she became more interested in how a building functions than in its design.

“When I was a junior or senior in high school, I thought about architecture, but I leaned more towards the math and science rather than the creativity,” says Guy, also 34 and president-elect of the Architectural Engineering Institute. “So I thought engineering would be a natural fit.”

Guy and Yosten earned advanced degrees, two years apart, from Durham on the UNO campus, one of the few schools in the country offering a five-year program combining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architectural engineering. Each specialized in mechanical engineering, obtaining a breadth of knowledge of a building’s structural aspects, plus its lighting, electrical, heating, cooling, and ventilation areas.

Guy opted to work for a company that focuses strictly on engineering, although she still works closely with architects. Her portfolio with Alvine includes renewable energy projects at Creighton University, renovations at Duchesne Academy in Omaha, a new school of nursing at the University of Michigan, a 50-story residential high-rise and a 50-story Class A office building, both in Chicago.

“There’s something about this Midwestern location and Midwestern work ethic that allows us to be successful,” Guy says. “We’re just a flight away from both coasts. HDR, DLR, and Leo A Daly all started here and are still here, three of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world, with offices around the globe.”

Yosten, who interned at HDR while in school, felt at home with the company’s global reach from the get-go, especially in the field of health care.

“My mom is a physician assistant in West Point, and my wife is a nurse, so I have a true appreciation for what they do,” Yosten says. “So when I learned how much HDR’s portfolio is geared towards health care, that was a big drive for me to
stay here.”

Some of the notable health care projects Yosten’s teams have guided include the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, set to open soon, and a $1.27 billion replacement for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, best known as the hospital where President John F. Kennedy died. They’re also designing a new tower for Omaha’s
Children’s Hospital.

What keeps HDR’s 952 employees in Omaha and Lincoln, Leo A Daly’s 130 local employees, over 50 architectural firms, and more than two dozen engineering firms anchored here? The ability to balance a high-powered job and a personal life in an area that avoids getting caught up in the rat race plays a huge role.

It allows Guy and her husband to raise four daughters, who range from an infant to age 9, while pursuing a career that has garnered her numerous professional awards.

It allows Yosten time to play with his 18-month-old twin boys, who he says are “really ornery and a handful” but the light of his life, along with his wife, Jill.

Development may be booming in Omaha, but sometimes the intangibles prove a greater lure for employees.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

The Evolution 
of Pop Music

April 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Admittedly, 34-year-old Omaha native Jonathan Tvrdik doesn’t sleep much. Between co-owning Benson’s Krug Park, working as a consultant for his wife Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik’s business Hello Holiday, being a father to 2-year-old son Hugo, directing music videos and commercials, making music, and holding down a day job as both the executive creative director at Phenomblue and head of product design at Rova, there’s not a lot of room for much else. It’s a path he can trace back to childhood.

“When I was a little kid, I played by myself and was always building things,” Tvrdik recalls. “I’m an adult version of that kid who is constantly making new project—like a band, bar, new app, or music video. I’ve always been a goal-oriented person with lots of irons in the fire.”

Ironically, that’s where the inspiration behind the name of Tvrdik’s upcoming solo album came from. Titled Irons, it’s a project over two years in the making and one that took careful crafting with the help of longtime friend and drummer for The Faint Clark Baechle. Busting at the seams with heavy themes of introspection and emotional growth, Irons illustrates a tumultuous period in Tvrdik’s life.

“For better or for worse, that’s where I’ve always been—busy,” he says. “I don’t even know what that has created in me—like who am I as a person? I’ve always been a workhorse, but who am I really? Each song dissects a different thing I am doing or interested in, or a certain vice I have as a result of all the stuff I am working with. It’s a very self-analytical sort of record.”

Beginning with “Something Better” and culminating with “Star Stick,” the 11-track album is like Joy Division meets The Faint, or as Tvrdik describes it, “Frank Sinatra on top of electronica-goth.” It was a true labor of love and Tvrdik really trusted Baechle’s expertise. Some tracks he thought were polished and ready to go; Baechle would hear them and mistakingly refer to them as “demos.” It took the experience of his fine-tuned ear to sew up any loose ends.

“We’ve made a lot music together over the years from a musician and engineer standpoint,” Tvrdik explains. “For this one, we started working through the process of what it was going to look like. I always knew when I was done mixing and recording it on my own, I would take it to him to refine. My producorial technique is very raw. For songs I thought were done and perfect, Clark would be like, ‘I got your demos’ [laughs]. I’m very right brained and he’s very left. I wanted his brain to go through it with a fine-toothed comb and nit pick the hell out of it, which he did. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”

Although Tvrdik’s music background goes back to The Cog Factory days, where Omaha staples like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Cursive’s Tim Kasher, and The Faint’s Todd Fink (Baechle’s older brother) got their start in the early ’90s, naturally he’s experienced plenty of evolutionary changes in terms of his musical output. At one point, he was in a hardcore band, and later a noise-based outfit. While he felt he was still emotionally expressive in all of them, it’s with the forthcoming Irons he felt he was truly able to effectively communicate to the listener exactly what he was experiencing.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Your Trash, Her Treasure

April 9, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Even on a blustery, freezing January day, as Christmas lights still twinkle from neighbors’ homes, it’s Halloween inside Diane Hayes’ apartment.

Enter into her abode, which is located in the 105-year-old West Farnam Apartments off Dewey and 38th streets, and you’re confronted with fortunetellers and witches and skeletons, oh my! The 1,800-square-foot place is spacious, with floorboards that squeak and much of its early 20th-century charm still intact, but it’s Hayes and her often-merrily macabre refurbished artwork that makes the apartment truly spellbinding.

“For a while, I tried to keep all my work hidden in one room, but then I said ‘Oh, to hell with it,'” Hayes says. “By the time they carry my body out of here, I suppose things will really look strange.”

Hayes lives to make the old new again. From turning a vintage side table into an animatronic fortuneteller to using antique alarm clocks to create mini terrariums that depict tragedies like the Titanic sinking and Lindbergh kidnapping, she uses her creative magic to take everyday objects and turn them into art. A strong believer that “décor shouldn’t come from Bed, Bath & Beyond,” Hayes scavenges through Goodwill, antique shows, and online to buy things only for their pieces and parts.

After purchasing an item, she stows it away and lets ideas start marinating in her head. Once inspiration strikes, the tinkering begins.

“It’s not my thing to come home after a long day and sit down to watch TV,” Hayes says. “I’m always putting something together.”

While she displays most of her work in her home, she does sell some items on Etsy and has donated pieces to benefits for the Nebraska AIDS Project and the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

If she isn’t selling or donating a piece, chances are it will end up in her year-round Halloween-themed office. Teeming from floor to ceiling with things that go bump in the night, this room is more fun and festive than frightening, as most of her collection reflects Halloween styles that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s. And come Halloween night, Hayes is the ghostess with the mostess, inviting around 80 costumed party guests into her apartment to have their palms read by a fortuneteller and watch silent films like Nosferatu.

“I love the Halloweens I grew up with,” Hayes says. “It’s such a fun time of year, and it doesn’t have the stress or religious and political connotations of Christmas.”

Beyond Halloween, living in Omaha’s first luxury apartment building offers its own inspiration. Built in 1912, the West Farnam Apartments house the city’s oldest working elevator.

“You can hear those 100-year-old gears cranking and groaning, almost like a tiny factory that’s come to life,” Hayes says.

Perhaps, this explains her next project—refurbishing an old clock complete with its own ancient gears. Some projects she completes in a day, others she’s always working on, always tinkering. This clock’s finish date is yet to be determined, and to Hayes that’s just fine.

“It’s been an unfocused life,” Hayes says, “but I’m not sure I’d want to do it any other way.”

Visit etsy.com/people/halloweenclocks for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Home Away From Home

February 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Volunteer firefighters at the Bennington rural fire station believe saying, “It’s quiet,” could spell the difference between a boring night and one that ends badly.

When the firefighters’ beepers buzz, there is no telling what could be on the end of the call.

“I thought a GI bleed was the worst thing I’d ever smelled, but charred human flesh was worse,” Kim Miksich says.

As a volunteer firefighter for the past year, Miksich expects the unexpected.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that this petite blonde could strap on a 70-pound pack of gear and venture into the smoky darkness of a fire. Yet, a tough determination and reliance is obvious as she recalls her first training runs. Miksich’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature heated up just like the flickers of flame as she stepped into the pitch black. Even though she had an experienced firefighter to guide the way, it was still pretty scary.

Miksich, a 20-year veteran of nursing at Bergan Mercy Medical Center, realized at 41 years old that she no longer had a choice. She felt compelled to follow her dream of fighting fires, even if it meant not getting paid.

“I dove in headfirst and went for it,” Miksich says.

It was a longing Miksich harbored for almost 20 years. It took her almost a year to get in good enough shape to pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test.

Miksich now volunteers at least three days of 12-hour shifts a month, staying overnight in the wide-open space of the station.

It was a huge life change. Married for 13 years, she would now have to spend nights away from her husband (who was supportive of her extra hours at the station). “He’s more worried about the dangerous aspects of the job,” she says.

Miksich, along with 44 other volunteers, covered 708 calls, 185 fires, and 523 rescues last year. All for free. Pride in service is evident all over the station, from the clean floors to the gleaming red, yellow, and blue firetrucks, to the smoke-stained coats.

The station—which opened in 2015—is immaculate. The cleanliness of the trucks and living quarters reflect this just as much as the hours the firefighters put in to save lives.

Assistant Chief Ben Tysor believes money normally spent on salaries can be spent on the facility, allowing them to better serve citizens.

It is a far cry from the former small white building down the street. It is no rinky-dink, country-bumpkin fire station. Donated by Darrell and Coe Leta Logemann, the warm brick of the building draws in visitors and volunteers. Tall, stately windows with squares outlined in bright red reflect the rustic scenery.

Opening the door, it feels a bit like a church. The stillness is a reminder of death, danger, and destruction. In the tribute room to the left, a pillar of the Twin Towers tilts to the side in a concrete frozen reminder of what could happen without courageous souls willing to risk their lives for others. The job, “a constant unknown,” matters as visitors stroll past a case filled with helmets, suits, and photos.

Fingers of sunlight reach out to an old hose cart, purchased in 1912 for $13 by the Village of Bennington (a historical reminder of those long-gone firefighters who remain part of the squad).

Chief Brent Jones continues this “family” feeling by staying in touch even with volunteers who have left.

“I spend a lot of time there. It is like a second home,” Jones says.

One of his toughest days recently included 10 calls in a 24-hour period. He hadn’t slept, so downtime in one of the black leather chairs created much-needed relaxation and peace. About eight of these same movie-style recliners are in one room facing a flat-screen television.

Firefighters can also make a meal in the vast kitchen complete with a center island. A stainless steel refrigerator and freezer filled with frozen pizzas, a slab of prime rib, or other items labeled with volunteers’ names fill the insides. Or they can help themselves to a pop from the fountain machine or fresh salted popcorn.

It’s meant to be a home away from home. Upstairs, eight bedrooms complete with bed, television, and desk give it a laid-back vibe. A full locker room comes in handy when someone comes in to use the modern weight room which overlooks the trucks (a reminder to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice—perhaps using the fireman’s pole behind a closed door).

Volunteers must meet three Mondays out of the month for emergency medical or fire training and business meetings. A big time commitment, but necessary.

“[Volunteering] is a disease. Once it is in your blood, you can’t get it out,” Jones says.

Jones, a 14-year volunteer, loves the challenge. But mainly, it is his way of serving the community. Jones spends 25 to 30 hours a week in Bennington, and about 56 hours on his regular job as a firefighter in Lincoln, where he has worked for the past 16 years. His wife also volunteers when she isn’t working as a paramedic with Midwest Medical Transport.

Although downtime seems like a minimum, pranks are still played. Jacked up trucks, water dumped on heads, and snakes in the lockers are classic.

One firefighter laughs as he plans to scratch at the door of a co-worker who believes a ghost roams the station randomly leaving the showers and sinks running.

Some of the firefighters believe they bring the spirits back after a trip. Although it is possible, the building may just be too new.

“Just don’t say the word quiet,” Jones says again. “Something will happen.”

Visit benningtonfirerescue.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Destinations

February 22, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Horse stalls went bye-bye long ago. Now, Aksarben Village is losing car stalls, too. But that’s a good thing, as far as continued growth of the former horse-racing grounds goes. Dirt is overturned and heavy equipment sits on the plot extending north and east from 67th and Frances streets, formerly a parking lot for visitors to the bustling area. That’s because work has commenced at the corner on what will become HDR’s new global headquarters, which opens some time in 2019. The temporary loss of parking will be offset by great gain for Aksarben Village — a 10-story home for nearly 1,200 employees with a first floor including 18,000 square feet of retail space. HDR also is building an adjacent parking garage with room for ground-level shops and restaurants. But wait, car owners, there’s more. Farther up 67th Street, near Pacific, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is building a garage that should be completed this fall. Plenty of parking for plenty to do.

BENSON

A continental shift has taken place in Benson — Espana is out and Au Courant Regional Kitchen is in, offering Benson denizens another food option at 6064 Maple St. That means a move from now-closed Espana’s Spanish fare to now-open Au Courant’s “approachable European-influenced dishes with a focus on regional ingredients.” Sound tasty? Give your tastebuds an eye-tease with the menu at aucourantrestaurant.com. Also new in B-Town: Parlour 1887 (parlour1887.com) has finished an expansion first announced in 2015 that has doubled the hair salon’s original footprint. That’s a big to-do at the place of  ’dos.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The newest Blackstone District restaurant, which takes its name from Nebraska’s state bird, is ready to fly. Stirnella Bar & Kitchen, located at 3814 Farnam St., was preparing to be open by Valentine’s Day. By mid-January it had debuted staff uniforms, photos of its decor, and a preview of its delectable-looking dinner menu. Stirnella (Nebraska’s meadowlark is part of the genus and species “Sturnella neglecta”) will offer a hybrid of bistro and gastro pub fare “that serves refined comfort food with global influences,” plus a seasonal menu inspired by local ingredients. Fly to stirnella.com for more.

DUNDEE

Film Streams (filmstreams.org) made a splash in January announcing details on its renovation of the  historic Dundee Theater. Work began in 2017’s first month on features including:

Repair and renovation of the original theater auditorium, which will be equipped with the latest projection and sound technology able to screen films in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel 35mm and DCP presentations.

A throwback vertical “Dundee” sign facing Dodge Street.

An entryway that opens to a landscaped patio/pocket park.

New ticketing and concessions counters.

A store with film books, Blu-ray Discs and other cinema-related offerings.

A café run through a yet-to-be-announced partnership.

A 25-seat micro-cinema.

Oh, yeah, they’ll show movies there, too. And Dundee-ers won’t have long to wait—the project should be completed by the end of 2017.

MIDTOWN

In a surprise to many—especially those holding its apparently now-defunct gift cards—Brix shut its doors in January at both its Midtown Crossing and Village Pointe locations. It was not clear at press time what factor, if any, was played by a former Brix employee, who in late December pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft by deception after being accused of stealing more than $110,000 as part of a gift card scheme. Despite the closing, Midtown has celebrated two additions of late as the doors opened to the “Japanese Americana street food” spot Ugly Duck (3201 Farnam St.) and to Persian rug “pop-up shop” The Importer.

NORTH OMAHA

The restoration of North Omaha’s 24th and Lake area continues its spectacular trajectory. In January, the Union for Contemporary Art moved into the completely renovated, historic Blue Lion building located at 2423 N. 24th St. The Blue Lion building is a cornerstone in the historic district. Originally constructed in 1913, the Blue Lion is named after two of the building’s earliest tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a nightclub that attracted many nationally known black musicians, and Lion Products, a farm machinery distributor. The entire district was listed as a federally recognized historic district in April 2016.

According to its website, “The Union for Contemporary Art is committed to strengthening the creative culture of the greater Omaha area by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of contemporary art forms in the community.” Founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew says the Union strives to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change in North Omaha. “The organization was founded on the belief that the arts can be a vehicle for social justice and greater civic engagement,” she says. “We strive to utilize the arts as a bridge to connect our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways.”

The Union will be hosting the annual Omaha Zinefest March 11. Event organizer Andrea Kszystyniak says Zinefest is a celebration of independent publishing in Nebraska. Assorted zines—essentially DIY magazines produced by hand and/or photocopier—will be on display at the free event, and workshops will be offered to attendees.

OLD MARKET

M’s Pub fans had plenty to be thankful for in November following the announcement that the Old Market restaurant would rise from the ashes of the January 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic eatery. Various media quoted co-owner Ann Mellen saying the restaurant would reopen this summer. Construction has been steady at the restaurant’s 11th and Howard, four-story building, but customers weren’t sure M’s would be part of the rebirth until Mellen’s well-received comments. Mellen says the feel—and the food—will be the same. Even if the name may change.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

The Art of Architecture

December 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When asked about the design principles behind his contemporary, DIY home, Joel Holm employs a more-than-pregnant pause. Finally collecting his thoughts, he borrows—intentionally or otherwise—from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“The idea,” he says, “was to do…something completely different.”

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But there is so much more than “something completely different”—as dramatic as it is in this case—about the plot of land just a few doors south of Leavenworth on 52nd Street. The home, which he shares with his wife, Melissa, and their three children, is something of a forever-in-progress DIY project for Holm. He built most of it himself. More than just a basement workshop tinkerer with a table saw and tool belt, Holm is a remodeler whose H Aesthetics business recently merged with Workshop Unknown.

The design vision for the home and everything that followed became for the Holms an exercise in 
simple living.

“I’ve often thought about why we use this material instead of that material in homebuilding,” Joel explains, “especially when it would be cheaper, friendlier to the environment, and would last a heck of a lot longer if we used what we normally think of as industrial materials—and used them in new ways.”

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Square Hardie Board panels form a blocky geometrical array on the home’s exterior. Affixed with rivets that are proudly left visible and with the material’s aquamarine hue, the home almost takes on the vibe of a vintage seafaring vessel, that of an algae-encrusted steamer or battleship. Abutting those lines and introducing a contrasting motif is corrugated, recycled roofing material in red. The material’s striated ridges disrupt the cube theme that could otherwise dominate the façade. Adding to the industrial look are heated cement floors, commercial windows, and a CMU, cinder block-style 
block foundation.

Reclaimed strips of acrylic ingeniously incorporated into the pivoting front door create a dramatic, twice-daily light show. Viewed from inside the home, the morning sun streams through the door’s acrylic insets. At night and from curbside, the home’s interior lighting hits the slats in reverse fashion. The overall effect is that of electrified neon, and it takes closer examination to discern that there is nothing more at play here than beams of filtered light.

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A passerby’s first impression may be that the boxy, 3,500 square-foot home is a volcano of “contemporary” erupting in the brick-clad charm of the surrounding Elmwood Park neighborhood. But take a step back for a wider view, and you’ll notice that the Bauhaus-ish lines of the home subtly mirror those of the Prairie-esque ones of the property next door to the south.

“We didn’t have any particular architectural influence in mind with the design of this home. When I think of what we did here, it is that this is a just a better way to build a house,” he says of the home that was showcased in the 2011 Green Omaha Coalition Tour.

“Too many homes, to us, look alike,” adds Melissa. “After awhile, traditional homes built with traditional materials all tend to be 
the same.”

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The master bedroom suite is located on the main level while the kids’ bedrooms occupy the upper level. Instead of a standard hallway in a home where nothing standard is to be expected, the children’s bedrooms are connected by a wide concourse that acts as a play and study area all their own. Oversized sliding bedroom doors provide alone time in this most open and airy of settings.

“Having it be a very open space was important to us,” says Melissa. “It’s a lot of house, especially when compared to where we came from [only blocks away]. Our previous home was very quaint and charming, but it was cut up into too many individual rooms. When company came or when we had parties in the old house, it was always that awkward sort of arrangement where four people would have to be seated in another room and then a few more would be tucked around the corner from there.”

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Initial construction of the home designed in collaboration with architect Eddy Santamaria of Contrivium Design + Urbanism spanned almost two years.

A walking club made up of seniors from Elmwood Tower, a nearby independent living facility, peppered Joel with questions almost daily as work progressed. “I could have talked to them all day about what we were building,” he quips. “I’m sure I lost a month in the construction process talking to them.”

“And we were both surprised how much most of them liked it,” Melissa adds. “We had thought that older folks might not get it—might not get what we were doing—because even a lot of younger people don’t get it. People either love it,” she says with a shrug, “or hate it.”

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Such major additional projects as a fireplace are planned as time allows sandwiched in between a busy schedule of school and other activities for daughters Avery (7) and Kinley (15) and son Kaleb (12).

The Holms are also thinking about getting around to doing something with a pair of “doors to nowhere,” ones  that will eventually lead to a yet-to-be-built deck in one case and balcony in the other.

Mirroring the contours of a softly sloping lot, the home has six distinct levels plus a basement. To travel from the mudroom at the rear of the house to the front door, for example, it is a gradual one-two-three ascent of gently rising levels. In between, the space is full of subtleties that serve to break up the right angles that are otherwise everywhere to be found. A mini-flight of steps leading from the living room down to the kitchen area, for example, is sliced into a wedge configuration. The continuity of the open living room/kitchen space is never completely severed, Joel explains, but is instead merely interrupted in a way that delivers a sense of “roomness” between the two.

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The centerpiece of the kitchen is a custom table crafted by Workshop Unknown. Its acrylic surface and arcing, birch-laminated legs complement the acrylic and birch found elsewhere throughout the home.

“It’s such a simple and elegant wood,” Joel says of the birch, “and it’s a lot cheaper than many of your other choices.”

Expansive walls of glass in the main living area make for wide-open vistas but took some getting used to, Melissa says, especially when the family first moved in.

“We had people showing up outside and cupping their hands against the glass to get a look inside,” she chuckles. “They must have assumed it was a dentist’s office or something like that because our home is so different from everything else around here. I’d be reading a book or watching TV, and I’d catch some movement out of the corner of my eye, and there’d by some guy making nose prints on my windows!”

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If the home was in any danger of feeling cold or sterile, works by area artists and beyond lend a warm and vibrant touch in a color palette grounded in organic ochres.

“That was also an important driving force in planning our home,” says Joel. “We knew we wanted a place where we could display a lot of art, some of it on a pretty large scale.”

Everything about the lines, forms, and spatial composition of the Holms’ place suggest an acute attention to the art of architecture and the architecture of art.

“We do consider the house a work of art,” Joel explains as Melissa nods in agreement. “It’s something of a living sculpture but a very functional one for our family.”

Repurpose

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, The Salvation Army, and Nebraska Humane Society

A good location often draws businesses to established neighborhoods. Repurposing an existing building can also revitalize a neighborhood, a lofty goal that could bring tax benefits to a business that qualifies for the City of Omaha’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for property in certain areas. (Read the guidelines about qualifying for TIF and also see if a property falls within the community redevelopment area at cityofomaha.org/planning.)

The advantages of repurposing commercial properties are plentiful. Here are a few examples of repurposed buildings that have paid dividends across the board.

A Landmark Preserved—The Residence Inn by Marriott Omaha Downtown 

An example of TIF financing sits at 106 S. 15th St. The Residence Inn, scheduled for a September opening, in an Art Deco building that has housed many federal agencies since 1934. The last occupant, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, moved out in July 2008.

Location was a key factor in the building’s choice. “The location was a prime position for the type of hotel we wanted to develop—an extended-stay hotel for a mixture of business and leisure guests,” says General Manager Kyle Highberg. The estimated $24 million renovation presented unique challenges. “Our architects and developers spent countless months designing each room, each space, and each feature.”

The Federal Building is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. “We worked in conjunction with them to make sure we were maintaining the historical integrity of the building,” he says. If a building can be preserved, it should, Highberg adds. “I think it presents a certain social responsibility to do so when we can.”

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Dingman’s Collision Center is now housed in the space formerly occupied by Cougar Lanes Bowling Alley.

It Takes Vision—Dingman’s Collision Center

Boyd Dingman believes that vision is the secret to successfully repurposing a building. A water bottling plant on Saddle Creek Road became his first Dingman’s Collision Center in 1996. In 2005, he bought his second location near 120th and Maple streets that started life as a mechanical shop.

Renovating his third location three years ago presented special challenges. But Dingman liked the site. The building near 144th and West Center streets was formerly Cougar Lanes Bowling Alley.

Renovation was not easy. The 25 bowling lanes were removed and lowered. Walls were torn out. The roof, parking lot, sewers, and concrete were repaired. The $1 million renovation of the structure that was built in 1968 took four months.

Dingman is now making plans for a fourth repurposed building for his business, which he runs with help from his two sons and daughter.

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Nebraska Humane Society’s building was formerly a Food4Less supermarket.

Location, Location, Location—Nebraska Humane Society 

When the Nebraska Humane Society was ready to move, President and CEO Judy Varner looked at property farther west and also considered new construction. But instead the shelter simply moved next door to a 63,000-square-foot building at 8929 Fort St. that sat empty—a former
Food4Less supermarket.

“We do a lot of business at the courthouse and downtown, so moving west would have been a problem,” she says. “Due to the proximity of this building to our old home, we were able to involve the staff in the design of the new space, which was great for team building.”

Major renovations included plumbing, acoustical, and HVAC.

The Nebraska Humane Society now has four repurposed buildings on its campus. The spay/neuter clinic used to be a bank, and the education building once was a strip mall. The former shelter is now used for animal control offices, overflow for rescue efforts, boarding, daycare, and grooming.

A History of Repurposing—The Salvation Army 

The Salvation Army has twice repurposed buildings. In 1991, the former Methodist Hospital at 36th and Cuming streets became the Renaissance Center, home to Western Division headquarters and social service programs.

After programs grew from seven to 20, The Salvation Army bought two former FBI buildings in the Old Mill area for $2.4 million and moved the divisional headquarters from the Renaissance Center in 2012 to make room for the new programs.

But after learning that bringing the Renaissance Center up to code would cost $35 million and a new structure would cost only $17 million, including demolition, The Salvation Army decided the building’s life was over after 107 years. A capital campaign to raise funds for a new social services building is underway.

Repurposing a Neighborhood—The Kroc Center 

The Wilson Packing Plant in South Omaha became dilapidated after closing in 1976. Repurposing the century-old building was out of the question. But revitalizing the neighborhood was not. The Salvation Army bought the land, equivalent to six city blocks, to build a new community center with funds donated by philanthropist Joan Kroc.

“It had been nothing but an eyesore,” says Madeline Moyer, business services director for the Omaha Kroc Center. “Police will tell you that the only thing you saw in two nearby city parks were gang initiations.”

The Kroc Center opened in January 2010 and changed the neighborhood. “Now you see people playing in the park,” says Moyer. “One resident said we were a beacon of hope for this community.”

Q&A: Jared Gerber

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kent Behrens, and Tom Kessler

Inspired by design from a young age, Jared Gerber knew early on he was destined to go into architecture. Today, he makes his living helping homeowners design custom living spaces that not only reflect their personalities, but also fit their natural environment.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you first come to discover your love of building design?

A: I think the architecture seed was first planted while I was growing up in Virginia. We would take school field trips to Colonial Williamsburg, and I found myself more interested in the architecture of historic buildings than anything else. I really enjoyed studying the aspects that make a building unique—the setting, the form, the details…and trying to discern the things I liked and disliked about a particular building. These experiences also gave me an appreciation for historic preservation.Ascott-07_Web

Q: Where did you receive your education and training in architecture? How did you end up in Omaha?

A: My family eventually moved to Nebraska, and I went to high school in Fairbury. After receiving my bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I decided to take a break and found a job working at an architectural firm specializing in churches in Charlotte, N.C. I loved being two hours from both the beach and the mountains, but I missed the four seasons and my family, so after a couple of years I decided to move back to get my master’s from UNL. Immediately after graduation, I found a job in Omaha. I’ve been here ever since.

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Q: Tell us a bit about your firm. Do you specialize in any niche of architecture or price range? What do you enjoy most about what you do?

A: I founded Gerber Architecture, PC in 2005. I started as a commercial architect but gravitated to the residential side after designing my first house project. I soon discovered that residential design is very rewarding because it has such a direct, personal effect on a client’s everyday life. Today, about 90 percent of my work is residential. I’ve designed a wide range of projects, from simple room remodels to multi-million-dollar additions and remodels to new-construction homes. I enjoy the design phase the most, as that’s the time when the creativity is flowing and there’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy with a project. I also enjoy the beauty of working with different clients. Each homeowner collaboration—discussing their wants, needs, and ideas—creates a house that is truly distinctive, and each offers different problems and solutions. And although most of the drawings are done on the computer now, I still enjoy doing the initial schematic drawings by hand.810-09_Web

Q: Tell us about one of your favorite projects. What challenges and rewards did it offer?

A: One of my favorites was a new house that I designed on a beautiful 40-acre lot south of town that was full of bur oak trees and teeming with wildlife. With a large acreage, you not only design the residence…the creativity extends to the broader view of the site, the approach of the house. Siting the house can be the most difficult task…the vegetation, views, sun patterns, and topography are all factors the homeowner will live with every day. In this case, there was an open, flat area that initially appeared the best placement option. However, after further analysis, pushing [the residence] back to a spot nestled within some trees gave the house a feeling like it belonged…as if it grew out of the site. The finished house is not huge—less than 3,000 finished square feet—but it’s the siting of the house, the quality of the spaces, and the craftsmanship of the details that reflect the homeowners’ personality and make it a great project. The house was featured on the AIA [American Institute of Architects] Omaha Home Tour a couple years ago, and I’m still getting feedback from attendees on how much they appreciated the house.Wehrbein-02_Web

Q: Tell us a bit about you personally. Family, associations, and interests outside of work?

A: My wife, Kristine, and I have been married for almost 24 years. We have two boys—Creighton, a sophomore at Augustana in Sioux Falls, S.D., studying archeology, and Drew, a junior at Westside High School. We enjoy traveling, touring houses, and trying out new restaurants. I’m currently on the board for AIA Omaha and help organize various events for our membership. Interacting with my fellow architects helps keep me updated on changes going on both locally and nationally. I’m also a bit of a beer aficionado and enjoy some of the local and regional craft beers and the monthly home brewer’s club at the German-American Society. I’m a former athlete and a huge football fan and often take in a Husker game with my boys.