North America’s longest river is receiving lots of local attention—and not just because of all the Pokémon in the vicinity.
Omaha’s Old Market is the place to be for players of the successful augmented reality game, Pokémon Go. There are more Pokémon “trainers” roaming from the Old Market to the Missouri riverfront than anywhere else in the city.
Development of local Pokéstops (i.e., actual locations geo-tagged within the virtual game) began in summer of 2016. Omaha’s riverfront in real life—not in the virtual game—has been a big development question mark for decades.
Concerted discussions about developing the riverfront started with a master plan drawn up in the mid-1970s. Plans for the Gene Leahy Mall took root. The lush riverine park now connects the interior of downtown to Heartland of America Park, ConAgra, and the river’s edge
Historic controversy lingers in between, where ConAgra forced the 1989 demolition of Jobbers Canyon. The Jobbers Canyon Historic District was the largest “historic district” ever to have been lost (according to the National Register of Historic Places). Omaha leaders cleared the hulking red-brick warehouse district to make way for a suburban-style campus, in order to appease ConAgra and keep the corporation headquartered in town. Until 2015. That’s when ConAgra announced it would be relocating its HQ to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (a historic structure akin to those ConAgra forced under the wrecking ball in Omaha some 26 years earlier).
In recent years, even before ConAgra’s pullout, Omaha community leaders began taking another look at riverfront development options. “Everyone was in agreement we couldn’t jump start it,” remembers consultant Donn Seidholz, a leader in the local planning committee. “We decided to bring in someone with no skin in the game.”
The mayors of Omaha and Council Bluffs hired a national nonprofit called Urban Land Institute (ULI) to provide advice on developing the riverfront. ULI’s report issued in 2014 emphasized the importance of the two cities working together, including developing more venues for events of different sizes. Seidholz says he has never before seen such a vibrant partnership between the two cities.
(Coincidentally, 2014 was the same year that Google Maps released an April Fools’ prank that eventually inspired American software developer Niantic Labs to launch the Pokemon Go app this year.)
“The fact is the river doesn’t separate us, it binds us together,” says Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh. In an e-mail response to interview requests, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert noted there are many opportunities to develop the waterfront into a vibrant destination—entertainment, special events, recreation and leisure, residential, and commercial.
The focus has been narrowed to four miles of land running along both sides of the Missouri River, starting at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
“It is part of our ongoing planning to continue the exciting developments already underway in downtown, including the Capitol District, Kiewit University, and the Civic Auditorium site,” Stothert told Encounter.
The ULI study was funded by local citizens and nonprofit foundations. “In Omaha, we are fortunate to have a strong philanthropic community that sees the value of public-private partnerships,” commented Stothert. “The ULI study provided a framework of ideas that can guide our next steps and promote collaboration between Omaha and Council Bluffs and the private partners who share our enthusiasm for this unique space.”
Chairing the ULI panel was Jim Cloar of Tampa, Florida, who has extensive experience with riverfront development, including eight years heading downtown development in St. Louis, a city with many of the riverfront challenges seen in Omaha.
He says some of the ULI recommendations for Omaha-Council Bluffs included dog parks, playgrounds, more pedestrian-friendly paths, and restaurants.
Cloar points out that downtown Council Bluffs sits four miles back from the river, so Iowans had not given developing the riverfront as much thought. “The river has been out of sight and out of mind,” he says.
The city leaders opposite Omaha’s riverfront are making up for lost time. Today Council Bluffs is developing a $140 to $160 million area along the riverfront called River’s Edge, with offices, retail, and condominiums. The land once hosted Playland Park.
“It is the original site of the dog track operated by Meyer Lansky, along with Lucky Luciana,” Walsh says. Mafia gangster Lansky lived in Council Bluffs from 1941 to 1943.
Walsh is looking at more condominiums and a new marina at the riverfront. The city of Council Bluffs is constructing a glass-fronted facility facing the river that will accommodate about 200 people for meetings and social events.
The Council Bluffs Parks Department is adding an interactive water feature for families that includes a water wall and splash pad area. Walsh sees the possibility of expanding the existing trail system along the river.
The ULI’s 2014 report, “Activating the Missouri Riverfront” recommended that early development begin near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where access to both cities is easier. The bridge was part of an earlier development project that broke ground in 2006.
Stothert believes that redevelopment of the riverfront will require better access for all types of transportation: “The north downtown pedestrian connector bridge, sometimes called ‘Baby Bob,’ is already partially funded and is included in our 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan. It will link the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to north downtown.”
In early years, Omaha’s riverfront was heavily industrial, observes Cloar. Railroad yards and the Asarco lead refinery—at one time the world’s largest lead refinery—occupied Omaha’s riverfront, as did four battery companies. Asarco closed in 1997 and the ground was capped.
Historically in the U.S., citizens saw their riverfronts as industrial areas, says David Karem, president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., a nonprofit located in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Throughout the United States, rivers were the highways of the nation, especially along the Missouri, Mississippi, and the Ohio rivers. Steamboats brought commodities into a community for easy unloading. When the steamboat went by the wayside, along came the railroad lines,” says Karem.
Karem began a redevelopment process in Louisville 27 years ago. The group renovated the land from an industrial area to an 85-acre waterfront park that ULI selected as one of the top 10 urban parks in the U.S.
For the Omaha-Council Bluffs redevelopment, ULI brought in eight panelists from around the country and talked to 90 people about a vision for the riverfront. Louisville is seen as a model city that has successfully redeveloped its waterfront.
Karem says it takes time to turn a riverfront around: “You’re not going to develop a waterfront in two or three years. It takes 15 to 20 years to make these projects.”
Redevelopment work continues on the Omaha and Council Bluffs riverfronts with coordination by the Missouri River Commons Action Group. The group, organized by the Greater Omaha Chamber, works toward furthering the riverfront vision through fundraising, planning, support of the initiatives of the Omaha and Council Bluffs mayors, and the start of a major riverfront festival.
Seidholz heads up the group. “Omaha has been the only city this size on a river or water that didn’t have a consistent, well-thought-out development plan,” he says. “Until now.”
What exactly that development plan looks like is still a bit mysterious for the general public. Several high-level developer and philanthropic stakeholders involved with possible future riverfront redevelopment declined interview requests or otherwise refused to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, the dilapidated shell of the Storz Trophy Room offers a reminder of prior development missteps. The brewpub hemorrhaged money from the time of opening in 2013 until the City of Omaha terminated its lease in 2015 for failing to pay rent.
Cyclists, joggers, and passersby continue to utilize the scenic river’s edge outside the failed brewpub (formerly the site of the struggling Rick’s Cafe Boatyard). Pokémon trainers—staring down at their smartphones—have already found a new use for the surrounding scenic landscape: catching virtual monsters.
For the full ULI report from 2014, visit: uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/Omaha_PanelReport_Fweb.pdf