When a new West Omaha Wal-Mart was being proposed in 2000, Connie Spellman remembers, someone questioned the difference between its uninspired, big-box design and a Wal-Mart with gabled parapets, lots of windows, and other visual details seen in Fort Collins, Colorado. An attorney responded that the Colorado community had adopted a set of design standards, sparking a conversation that eventually led to the 2001 establishment of Omaha by Design as an initiative of the Omaha Community Foundation.
“Omaha by Design was founded by three leading business owners in the community: Bruce Lauritzen, Ken Stinson, and John Gottschalk. They had the foresight to see that Omaha needed this capacity,” says Julie Reilly, who has been Omaha by Design’s executive director since 2015. “Without their leadership we would not have started down the path when we did and the way we did.”
Omaha by Design, now an independent nonprofit, works to improve the physical places in the community, using urban design principles and best practices as tools to address the issues of revitalization, development, environmental sustainability, and mobility while encouraging the creation of engaging and attractive places. Their projects range from the Benson-Ames Alliance, on which Omaha by Design serves as the project manager, to Public Art Omaha’s website and app.
“You need to have that voice that brings together the community, the city, developers, artists, the passionate environmental people,” says Spellman, Omaha by Design’s initial executive director. “It’s all about collaboration, engagement, and working together.”
In the beginning, it took “faith and patience,” she adds. At the time, there were no urban design professionals in city government.
“We were able to work with the community, and the developers, and everyday citizens, and the city [government] to create an urban design for the entire city,” she says.
That was the easy part.
“We learned you have to change the existing codes to implement the master plan…this is where it became more difficult. But after two years of constant negotiation, especially with the development community, the citizenry, and the city—who were wonderful—we passed all of the zoning codes and the urban design plan unanimously,” Spellman says.
Zoning code changes ultimately adopted via City Council approval were widespread. For instance, requirements for tree planting on new streets and individual lots became more stringent. A new designation, Area of Civic Importance, was created to allow for special guidelines protecting these designated areas and governing their development, from site layout to landscaping of access roads and parking. Another designation, mixed-zone, made possible walkable neighborhoods that connect to pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use centers at major intersections.
“We thought we would be lucky if we would see changes in 20 years,” Spellman says. “Well, we started seeing changes in two years.”
Since 2001, Omaha has seen neighborhoods revitalize and business districts resurrect or develop, and the people of the community now not only understand the term “urban design,” they see it firsthand, Reilly says.
“Looking at what Omaha by Design has done over the years, I think the most important thing is contributing to the concepts of urban design and policy, becoming part of the conversation for our city,” she explains. “The actual citizens and residents understand what urban design and policy best practice can bring to making their lives better in Omaha.”
The current membership of the board of directors and advisory committee represents more sectors of the community than ever, Reilly says. As a new nonprofit, “We’re still finding our way to a recipe that will allow our board of directors and our advisory committee to have the best impact for the organization but also be conscious of their volunteer contributions in terms of time and energy,” she explains. “We’re bringing people together from different sectors to discuss issues that are ultimately common between those sectors…We all want a better Omaha, a better greater metro area, a vibrant, livable city for all. Who wakes up every morning and thinks about the future of Omaha? We do.”
Visit omahabydesign.org for more information.
This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.