Tag Archives: Riverfront

Goodbye, Gene Leahy Mall

June 24, 2018 by
Illustration by provided

It’s the end of the Gene Leahy Mall as we know it. And Omaha civic leaders feel fine, apparently. Representatives of Mayor Jean Stothert’s office and the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project declined to comment on specific plans for the mall when contacted by Omaha Magazine and B2B. 

“The project team is in a critical review phase of the preliminary master plan, including a review of plan elements with study consultants in San Diego,” explained Stephanie Rittershaus of HDR in an email response to a media query submitted to the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. “That will be followed by a full committee meeting in late April to review and approve the updated master plan. Until that process is complete, there isn’t a finalized plan to review.”

The Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project is a public-private initiative working to revitalize the local riverfront in five zones: the Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha; and across the river along Council Bluffs’ riverfront (encompassing River’s Edge North and River’s Edge South). ConAgra’s campus is conspicuously absent from the declared scope of the comprehensive riverfront planning.

At public consultation meetings for the Riverfront Revitalization Project, preliminary architectural drawings showed that the Gene Leahy Mall’s man-made river would be filled with land; development zones covered the new ground from the city’s main library eastward to the Heartland of America Park. Meanwhile, the W. Dale Clark Library (a post-war brutalist building of architectural significance that has been subject to speculative redevelopment interest for years) was labeled a “development opportunity.”

The Gene Leahy Mall is only one part of the latest riverfront revitalization plans. The mall (previously known as Central Park Mall) holds special historical significance for the city’s past half-century of riverfront redevelopment plans. Originally built in the 1970s, the mall was the first phase of Omaha’s effort to reinvigorate the urban core at a time when a legacy of heavy industry and lead-polluted land separated urban downtown from the Missouri River.

Fundamentally changing the Gene Leahy Mall’s riverine landscape would overhaul the most iconic backdrop to Omaha’s urban skyline. Likewise, a drastic reshaping of the Gene Leahy Mall could mean removal of the downtown park’s public slide that is a popular draw for families.

But the park’s overhaul could also make crossing from the Old Market to the Holland Performing Arts Center easier for pedestrians while invigorating the space with increased activities that spur other developments. Proposed activity zones in place of the current man-made river and landscaping may include an outdoor amphitheater, a dog park, botanical paths, restaurants, activity areas, and other open spaces. 

The president of San Diego-based OJB Landscape Architecture, James Burnett, spoke about the proposed designs on Nov. 16, 2017, at the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public consultation presentation. “We think that by connecting the north and the south [lawns of the Gene Leahy Mall], we will have a lot more users in the park, a lot more eyes on the park, and a lot more events so that downtown could have a space where special events can occur,” Burnett said.

The project is co-chaired by Ken Stinson of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. and Mogens Bay of Valmont. Other members of the advisory committee include Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, Doug Bisson of HDR, Brook Bench with Omaha Parks, Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Gary Gates of Omaha Public Power District, Pete Tulipana of Iowa West Foundation, Mark Warner of ConAgra Brands, Rhonda Ferguson and Jack Koraleski of Union Pacific, and Jane Miller of Gallup. 

The project’s consultant team includes the firms OJB, Gensler, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Applied Ecological Services, The Concord Group, RSM Design, Lamp Rynearson, and HDR.

At the first riverfront revitalization public meeting, held Sept. 11, 2017, project co-chair Ken Stinson explained that the public-private partnership is “a very collaborative process, and part of that is reaching out to stakeholders in the community to get feedback and input.”

One person not approached was Gary Bowen, principal architect at Omaha-based BVH Architecture. 

Bowen had helped to design the Gene Leahy Mall during the 1970s with the city’s original plans for the land as civic leaders sought to revitalize Omaha’s struggling central business district.

Bowen and BVH were also involved in a proposed redesign of the Gene Leahy Mall in 2012 that would have maintained many of the area’s most beloved features (such as the man-made river and public slide) while adding an additional pedestrian bridge at 11th Street and an outdoor amphitheater, and expanding activity spaces in ways similar to those outlined in the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public meeting/presentation.

“The DID [Downtown Improvement District] was the nonprofit organization driving that project,” says Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, referring to BVH’s proposal for updating the Gene Leahy Mall. “It was a beautiful little plan that included updates like improved lighting and access, a brand-new playground to go along with the restored slides and improved lagoon habitat. However, it has always been part of the big picture open space opportunities connected to the riverfront. Given the scope of that concept and the powerhouses behind it, it only made sense to turn our plans over to them and allow them to run with it. The riverfront group was able to take our idea and expand it more than several times what we could have done. We are wholeheartedly supporting their efforts and have been a welcome community member at all meetings every step of the way.”

For the sake of public awareness of alternative proposals for updating the Gene Leahy Mall, B2B Omaha spoke with Bowen at BVH’s Omaha office.

Planning concept provided by Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project

Gary Bowen on the Gene Leahy Mall

How did your work with the Gene Leahy Mall factor into early riverfront revitalization plans?

There are a few of us that go back to the very beginning of what was called the Riverfront Redevelopment Era. I think it was in the late ’60s when the City Planning Department, Alden Aust mainly, formed a group of architects to put together a preliminary masterplan, a guide, a dream for rejuvenating downtown Omaha—and it was labeled “Back to the River,” and the whole theme was linking the central business district to the riverfront. This architectural group developed a preliminary master plan, outlining a number of projects that were kind of blue-sky projects, like a stadium and so on.

BVH was involved with this group of architects. Aust took the preliminary plan and went to the federal government and got a planning grant. Then, for the next step, they hired Lawrence Halprin’s office out of San Francisco, which was one of the premier landscape architectural design firms in the country at that time; they had come into other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, and put together plans that helped to stimulate redevelopment in the city core. 

So Lawrence Halprin came in, and these same five firms that did the initial grant proposal—Bahr, Vermeer & Haecker (BVH) with Hartman, Morford & Bowen; Leo A. Daly; Dana Larson Roubal (DLR), Henningson, Durham & Richardson (HDR), and Kirkham Michael and Associates—worked with Halprin’s office. Each firm was assigned a specific project to work on. One of those was a park, a mall. It was called the Central Park Mall at that time. At that time, I was with a different firm—Hartman Morford Bowen—and we teamed up with BVH to work on the preliminary plans for the mall. That was our assigned project. 

We worked for two years together on that. Then in 1974, after that round of planning was done. The city said, OK, we’re now going to start building something, and the mall was the first development. By that time, I had switched over and joined BVH, and we worked on the Central Park Mall with Halprin’s office. We teamed up with them, and over the next 15 years, developed the mall and built it in five or six phases. 

Another key player with this project was a city planner, Greg Peterson, who was the project manager through the entire duration of planning and construction. Without his perseverance and continuity, the project may have never been completed in its final form. It was a very complicated process from the start. The city had to acquire all of the various parcels of property in the six square blocks and haul in dirt to fill the void before any construction could begin in 1974.

The whole idea was to create an open green space that was a link between the CBD and the river. The theme of the park used water as a symbolic river that,  because it flowed from west to east, suggested movement to the riverfront.

At that time, Jobbers Canyon was still intact, and we proposed retaining two of the buildings and located them within the mall—the Burlington Building and the former McKesson-Robbins Building. Under great duress, we persevered and kept those buildings in the plan to link the urban fabric of the city to the park. But it was a difficult task because the city leadership at that time didn’t think old buildings were worth saving and basically told us not to show them in the plans or else we would be fired.

You’ve watched this riverfront issue come up over and over again as a longtime resident of Omaha. What’s your take on the recurring discussion of riverfront planning?

To back up a bit, in the late ’60s early ’70s, downtown Omaha was on the skids. When Brandeis closed downtown, that’s when everything hit bottom. So, in retrospect, we can see the whole idea of regenerating the CBD has worked.

The mall and the W. Dale Clark Library were the first projects that went into place. The idea was that if the city made a public commitment, that would stimulate private development. The whole idea worked wonderfully. If you look at where we are now, compared with where we were 50 years ago, it’s pretty amazing. 

But one of the biggest negatives of the city’s riverfront revitalization push was the loss of Jobbers Canyon. That was eight square blocks of warehouses. Had they escaped demolition, today they would have been renovated into condominiums and apartments, and the Old Market would have extended all the way to Eighth Street. Right now we are out of warehouses. There aren’t many left to renovate, and this whole movement to save old buildings and renovate them into businesses and condominiums has caught on fire. 

What’s happening now is infill projects, the gaps are being filled in—like this building at Ninth and Jones streets where BVH has its offices in Omaha. This was on the side of the old Butternut Building that burned down. If you look around, there is nice mix of new and old. 

The other part of Omaha’s historic riverfront redevelopment plans that didn’t work out so well is the area next to the river. There was a restaurant, Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, and later the Storz Trophy Room. But access was a problem. That restaurant location, occupied by different businesses, was one attempt to use an attraction to get people right down on the river that didn’t work out.

Of course, there have been a lot of successes with the riverfront redevelopment projects over the years. The CenturyLink Center has become a major anchor in close proximity to the riverfront, drawing people from all over.

Another major development that has proved beneficial is the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which of course provides a pedestrian link across the river. There wasn’t any access before that. That bridge has stimulated activity from east to west, and BVH came up with the original design for the bridge. We worked with an engineering firm that prepared a cost estimate that was over the budget, and after working for some time to get the estimate within budget, it didn’t work, so the city hired another firm to implement our design and do the final engineering drawings. But the idea, concept, and design are virtually identical to what we came up with originally.

Then, when it comes to generating activity on the riverfront, the Council Bluffs side has made wonderful progress. There’s Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, and the casinos have worked wonders. 

Everything has been heading in the right direction when you compare Omaha and the riverfront to what it was in the early days of my involvement. It’s been a miraculous turnaround. But there is still a way to go, in my opinion.

How were you involved in subsequent discussions to update or renovate the Gene Leahy Mall?

I recall that there have been two or three redevelopment plans for the mall, and we did one of them. There was an East Coast firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, that did one in 2006. Omaha By Design hired this firm to produce the plan. The whole idea was to activate the mall because, of course, downtown has changed in the last 50 years from virtually no one living downtown to more than 10,000 people living downtown today. 

The city was looking to activate the mall and kind of tweak it. Then, we were hired in 2012 to take a look at the mall after the update plan was not implemented. We looked at it and proposed an amphitheater, a plaza on the west end, an observation tower, a new pedestrian bridge crossing the mall at 11th Street with the idea to create another north-south bridge crossing the water to the Holland Center, and expanding the playground with the slide remaining in place.

Omaha’s Downtown Improvement District was heavily involved in that plan, partnering with the city, and the intent was to raise $20 million from sponsors to do this major overhaul of the mall. There was a personnel change, and then nothing ever happened. I don’t think there was any objection to our proposal, but nobody picked it up and ran with it. 

Were you or any BVH parters involved with the latest riverfront redevelopment planning meetings?

No invitation was offered.

I think one of our staff went to those meetings, but I suppose I’ve somewhat distanced myself because of such a close earlier personal involvement—and the fact that no one has reached out to the local architects who worked on the mall in the past.

I think there were open-ended invitations, that everybody was welcome. That’s good. It’s good to get input. But no one has ever approached us concerning the current mall redevelopment proposals. Nobody has come in to talk us about it like Omaha Magazine or B2B has.

It’s good that there is public and private interest in updating the Gene Leahy Mall. There is still work to be done; it’s never finished. But the current planners need to be aware of the reasoning behind what was done 40-50 years ago, because I think some of that is still valid. 

Having worked in the original conceptual development of the Gene Leahy Mall, do you feel attachment to its place in downtown Omaha’s environment?

Oh, being part of the creation of the mall was one of my career highlights. Right up there near the top. To help create a project that has had such a big impact and helped turn downtown Omaha around, I take pride in that. 

Cities are always evolving and changing, responding to different criteria and influences. I still think the mall is a valid part of downtown Omaha in its present location. Does it need to be revised and updated? Yes, but not with major surgical changes. Downtown Omaha still needs this linkage between the CBD and the river, and it still needs an open green space with activities. 

What do you think of flattening and paving the Gene Leahy Mall?

I think that would be a major mistake. Parts of it could be paved, and that was part of our proposal that we did with the city and the Downtown Improvement District. In fact, in the first block, we proposed a level-paved plaza with fountains, gazebos, and a restroom pavilion. Part of that plan was to level the mound on the north side of the mall to create a large lawn where one could kick soccer balls around and play tag football. 

I think one of the objections early on in the development of the mall was that it was lowered. That was intentional to create a separation of people from the busy traffic noise on both sides. There were some low walls around the mall, and some of those have been taken out to offer more view and to enhance security. 

But I don’t think filling it in is a good idea. Water is a magical attraction, especially in urban areas. It’s refreshing, and I think that aspect of the mall is important to keep. 

Part of the issue could be maintenance, realizing that the park is almost half a mile long. Six square blocks of lawn and trees take a lot of money for the city to maintain. I think that has been a challenge, so paving it and flattening it out could save a lot of maintenance money. But you get what you pay for.

Should the mall be updated? Yes. That’s what we were trying to do, too. But to completely wipe it off the map and start over? I would have hoped Omaha had learned its lesson with Jobbers Canyon.

How was the Gene Leahy Mall situated next to Jobber’s Canyon when you were originally involved in developing the project?

Jobbers Canyon was between Eighth and 10th streets, including the McKesson-Robbins Building and its twin to the north. It went all the way to Douglas Street on the north side of the mall, all the way south to Jackson Street between Eighth and 10th streets.

ConAgra came much later in 1986. The first phase of the Gene Leahy Mall was built in 1976, and it was about 10 years in the making before the issue of demolishing Jobbers Canyon came up. In the beginning, part of Jobbers Canyon was proposed to extend into the riverfront park. We were not involved with the Heartland of America Park. But that project completed the link from the CBD to the river.

When we first became involved with the Central Park Mall, that was before Jobbers Canyon or the Old Market had been declared a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.

In fact, we were actually threatened with losing our commission if we didn’t remove the old brick buildings from our conceptual plans. City leadership did not want to see them on the plan. “Don’t show them,” they said, “Why would you want to keep those?”

Of course, when ConAgra was looking for a site, the city was pretty much willing to put anything on the chopping block in order to keep them. There were several alternative locations offered, and there was even an offer to buy them an alternative site. 

During those early riverfront planning days, the powers that be—the business establishment—were quoted in the newspapers saying things like, “Ugly old brick buildings? What do we want to keep those for?” Keeping Omaha’s old brick warehouses was seen as anti-progress.

All the costs to tear the buildings down and the wasted energy, it was just a disaster. Sure, the fact that the corporation was headquartered here in Omaha, and there was lots of new construction, that was all good. But at the same time, it was the wrong location. If we could have managed to keep Jobbers Canyon and ConAgra, that would have been a win-win situation. Now, after everything is said and done, ConAgra’s headquarters have relocated to Chicago after all—and, ironically, they moved into a renovated historic brick building.

Are there things you would like to see different in the Gene Leahy Mall through to the riverfront?

On either side of the mall, there are some gaps that need to be filled in. The Gene Leahy Mall is really like a miniature version of Central Park in New York City, and it would be nice if the areas on both sides of the mall were more urbanized with more concentrations of buildings, big buildings. I think the contrast between the open green space and the architecture on either side would be better. It seems like there are some teeth missing on both sides that need to be filled in. If you look at Central Park or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—another example of an urban linear park that is very dense and built up on either side—these models were inspirational, something that we had always envisioned and would be beneficial for Omaha. 

If you take the area east of 14th Street, which is the beginning of the mall, that is where infill needs to happen. There have been some notable new developments in this regard, like the Landmark Building and the Holland Center, that needed to go in next to the mall. 

The mall has been kind of an anchor for this area of east downtown, but it does need to be updated and activated because it has satisfied the purpose for which it was intended. Originally, it was meant to be a catalyst for redevelopment downtown and a symbolic extension of the CBD east to the river. It did that. But in the early days of the park’s development, very few people lived and worked downtown. Now the equation has flipped. Lots of people want to live downtown, and there has to be an open green space with activities in it, like an amphitheater, a bigger playground, play space, soccer fields, and things like that. I would hope that one day something like that happens. 

Can you explain some of the proposed features in BVH’s unrealized proposal for the Gene Leahy Mall?

Well, some of our original proposals for the mall in 1972-73 featured shops, restaurants, and development along the fringe of the park, but were never realized.

The original BVH-HMB concept envisioned a park-like setting with many activities and attractions. This original concept established the basic idea of a linear park with its center below street level, with the east-to-west waterway representing a symbolic “return to the river.” The original conceptual plans were the basis for the more detailed master plan that BVH produced in concert with Halprin’s firm, which is what we have today with the lowered waterway, and the retention of the two historic buildings. 

In our more recent revisiting of the mall for the Downtown Improvement District, we proposed a new pedestrian bridge over 11th Street in addition to the preexisting pedestrian bridge. Our proposed bridge in the middle had a widened area where people could stop and look down. The whole idea for this new bridge, as with the other bridges, is that they have a shallow profile so one can see past it into the mall from one end of the park to the other.

Chroma design was the Denver-based landscape architect that we worked with to develop the 2012 plans. Some of the other elements that we proposed include: a ranger station; we would have kept the slide; we would’ve put some new structures in; a water element would’ve come through from the south side near the play area; there would’ve been new play structures for kids to get in and climb around; we proposed adding some more pathways and the top of the hill would be flattened and used for lawn events; and the arch was retained.

What did the arch belong to?

The arch was part of a building torn down on the south side of the mall, the former Corey McKenzie Building, which was a big stone structure about a half-block long where the Landmark Building and its parking garage are now located.

Before the Corey McKenzie Building was demolished, I convinced the city to have the arches carefully disassembled, the individual stones numbered, and then reassembled back-to-back in the Central Park Mall. The location on the north end of 11th Street represents a gateway from the Old Market to the park.

How did your involvement with Downtown Improvement District compare to the sort of private investment involved with the current riverfront revitalization plan?

There are politics in any kind of major civic projects, and generally, if the project is privately funded, there is protocol that donors like to go to certain firms or have certain stipulations attached to their donations.

Working with Downtown Improvement District was an entirely different scenario.

But there are private philanthropic entities in Omaha that can virtually raise any money they want, and $20 million wouldn’t have been any problem to them. 

I know that Downtown Improvement District did start talking to major players downtown. They showed the plans and said, “This is what we’re thinking. We’re not asking for money yet, but we want to get you acclimated and accustomed to what is being planned, and we’ll be around in a few years to ask for your help financially.” I attended a couple of those meetings.

Did private investment factor into the initial development of the Gene Leahy Mall in the ’70s?

I think it was all funded by federal grants obtained by Alden Aust, the director of city planning, through U.S. Sen. Carl Curtis. This was all federal money, Community Development Block Grant money, urban open space grants, and there were some of the business leaders involved in the early parts of the planning. There were public workshops, a task force that kind of guided the process, and the task force included Omaha residents ranging from business leaders all the way down the social structure to housewives and postmen. 

What do you think of the prospect of redeveloping the W. Dale Clark Library?

There has been talk of tearing it down or renovating it, and I don’t know where that stands. The library was built in the early ’70s, designed by a firm out of St. Louis—Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Over the years, it hasn’t maintained a lot of popularity because of its brutalist design 

I don’t think it’s a very open or friendly looking building, and it really occupies a key spot in downtown because it anchors the west end of the mall. It’s one of the stepping stones between the CBD and the mall and the river, a progression of things. It’s got a sunken moat around it, and in today’s world, it doesn’t quite fit into the Old Market architectural vernacular—which is really brick—but that brutalistic style was a popular thing in the ’60s and ’70s.

Would you like to share any additional thoughts on the subject of Omaha’s riverfront revitalization efforts?

I think the Old Market is sometimes taken for granted as an anchor for downtown Omaha and the riverfront. The fact that the Old Market is here, and it has been here since the very beginning—despite all the pressures to tear down buildings—is remarkable.

It was this jewel in a wasteland of vacant and derelict buildings in the ’60s that the Old Market started with the Mercer family buying up many of these buildings and helping to put in place amenities like the French Cafe, M’s Pub, and other businesses. 

Over the years, it has persevered through all the ups and downs and is one of the state’s most-visited tourist attractions. It has been the greatest thing to happen to downtown Omaha, in my opinion, in the last 50 years. It’s still here, and it is better than ever.

The ironic thing is that it was never really developed. It was organic. It started growing, and things kind of fell into place. It has never been grabbed onto by a developer and ruined, like some other areas in the country that have flashy buildings and signage. It is still kind of in that organic mode. It was never really planned. Whatever else happened, the Old Market was always there. It was always going to be there, and now everything has kind of grown up around it.


Visit riverfrontrevitalization.com for more information about the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Visit bvh.com to learn more about the local architectural firm involved with the Gene Leahy Mall’s initial conceptualization and construction.

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

Update: After this magazine went to press, the Riverfront Revitalization Project announced that the master plan would be revealed during a community meeting on June 12 (5-7 p.m. at Gallup’s headquarters, 1001 Gallup Drive). The presentation will begin at 5:30 p.m. Free parking will be available in the Gallup parking lot.

Early conceptual drawing by BVH

Rachel Halbmaier

July 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rachel Halbmaier is a woman with ideas, and she has the ability to convey these ideas in a way that makes people excited for what will come next. That’s why the former director of events and promotions for Lincoln’s entertainment district The Railyard is Greater Omaha Chamber’s Director of Riverfront Development for Missouri Commons. The job, which she accepted in February, is to oversee the activation of the riverfront area by increasing its usage for community events.

“I was uniquely qualified,” she admits, referencing her time in Lincoln. That position demanded that she plan and execute events while juggling the company’s social media and traditional promotions, and manage the staff of the Railyard Ice Rink and the Railyard Ambassadors.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish,” she says.

Donn Seidholz, chairman of the steering committee for Missouri Commons, revealed that more than 40 resumes from around the country were received for the position. “Clearly she was the heads-and-tails best pick,” he says. “She was absolutely the best choice for the job,” he says, adding that her “passion, excitement, and enthusiasm are infectious. We’re thrilled with Rachel.”

“We needed someone who could share the passion to activate the riverfront,” Seidholz says.

Halbmaier envisions events at the riverfront that will draw locals, and also compel people to travel here to attend. “We’re going to bring people together to make memories,” she predicted.

“I’d love to see a world-class festival down there, but I’d also like to see the space activated Monday through Friday as well. Maybe a music festival, or a food and wine festival. Or a triathlon, or a fashion show on the bridge, or maybe a pop-up dog park,” Halbmaier mused, overflowing with ideas on how to activate the available space. “I want to enhance what’s already there.”

Relationship-building is a critical part of this position, and she anticipates spending her first year connecting with community leaders and other people to understand what the riverfront can become while also fueling support for development. Growing up in Kenesaw, Nebraska, and attending school in Lincoln means that she didn’t necessarily have ample experience with the riverfront, but that is not an obstacle for her. Seidholz praises her proactive work ethic, stating, “She didn’t wait around for us to tell her what to do or who to meet.” Seidholz laughs and says that just when he thinks of someone with whom Halbmaier should meet, he finds out Halbmaier has already reached out to him or her. 

Her coming goals for the riverfront include bolstering the bond between Omaha and Council Bluffs, and “getting people down there and making them feel welcome.” Seidholz says Halbmaier can accomplish “just about anything,” and “has the full, undying support of everyone on the committee. The support has been unbelievable from Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.” This strong support, coupled with Halbmaier’s relentless drive, will most likely result in some great things to come for the riverfront.   

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

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

Back to the River

August 27, 2015 by

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

The Asarco lead refinery along the Missouri riverfront was Omaha’s largest company in the mid-1880s. In fact, in the early 1900s, the Omaha plant was the largest lead refinery in the world.

The company then known as American Smelting and Refining Co. was looked upon as a good
corporate citizen.

But a century went by and people began learning how lead could pollute the Missouri River and the air, as well as possibly affect their health. Asarco began facing scrutiny, especially from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Not only was there a question of pollution, but the riverfront area that sustained other heavy industrial companies, including four battery companies, was unattractive and unappealing.

“The riverfront was drab and dismal and it was embarrassing to come to Omaha out of Eppley with all the industrial and junk yards and Asarco, which had the largest land piece on the riverfront,” Former mayor Hal Daub says.

Cleaning up the area was a first step toward a renovated riverfront. For Daub, focus on the riverfront began in 1995 with debate on renovating the old Civic Auditorium that sat in downtown Omaha. Daub proposed that, instead of spending city funds fixing up the auditorium, the city should clean up the riverfront and build a new auditorium there.

At the same time, he also saw developing the riverfront as key to downtown renewal. Prominent business leaders were telling him they might move their companies from the dying downtown.

Daub wanted a cleaned-up riverfront to anchor the renovation of downtown. So he picked up the phone and called Asarco’s corporate office in New York.

A former U.S. congressman, Daub knew his way around the Superfund and federal rules on cleaning up sites determined to be hazardous to human health.

“I knew Asarco qualified as a Superfund and that Nebraska could shut down the plant,” Daub says.  “We got the title to the land and $50 million for cleanup from Asarco.”

He is quick to point out that Asarco was cooperative.  “They understood the dilemma they faced in a changing environment and they agreed.”

The facility closed in 1997 after 110 years.  Demolition ended in late 1999, completing the largest cleanup of lead-contaminated yards in history.

The closing of Asarco paved the way toward Omaha’s riverfront development. Today Lewis & Clark Landing and Storz Brewing Company sit where Asarco was located.

In 2000, the city added a second project in the revitalization effort, buying 107 acres from Union Pacific where the railroad’s shops sat near the river, after cleanup efforts directed by the EPA.

The cleanup also made way for the new convention center-arena in 2000, the project that had first turned Daub’s attention to the riverfront. Voters approved bonds to build near the riverfront what is now the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

The Union Pacific land also now hosts TD Ameritrade Park, the Hilton Hotel, and parking lots, according to Greg Peterson, who was then the city’s assistant planning director.

Union Pacific and Asarco were both important to an integrated plan for development along the riverfront, says Daub.

“Sometimes you have to tear down old stuff because you can’t see past the ugliness of what’s there in order to envision what could be there,” says Daub.

ASARCO

The Greenhouse is why Marge Tilton stays downtown.

January 16, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a chilly Wednesday evening in Downtown Omaha, and Marge Tilton is just coming home from a yoga class. It’s been a busy day for the 86-year-old personal assistant. While the temperature decreases and the Old Market’s hustle and bustle continues outside her building, Tilton sits in her warm loft in The Greenhouse without hearing a peep.

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“Years ago,” she recalls, “there was a big sign on this building that read ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now.’ That intrigued me, and so I decided to check it out.”

Tilton’s one bedroom, 720-square-foot loft boasts an open floor plan with a washer-dryer and access to an underground garage. Each loft is unique in its own way with high ceilings and exposed brick and piping. Sizes of the lofts range from 625 square feet to 1120. The building also features a fitness center and a security and intercom system. Most impressive though is its location across ConAgra Foods’ Downtown campus, a feature that has attracted an eclectic mix of residents from grad students to retirees.

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“I feel like I don’t have to go out to be part of the action,” Tilton says. “I can just open my blinds, and it’s all right here. I feel like I’m a part of Downtown.”

Assistant Manager Mary Whittington says many of the building’s tenants share Tilton’s views on the property’s prime location. “It is in the middle of the Old Market,” she says. “For retired people, it gives them kind of a young feel, and for grad students, it’s the location that appeals to them as well.”

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The lofts occupy the former McKesson-Robbins Warehouse on 9th and Farnam streets. It’s one of the few remnants of Jobbers Canyon, an industrial and warehouse district that solidified Omaha as a central hub for the transportation boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Also known as Nash Block, the nine-story, Renaissance Revival-style structure itself was designed by Thomas Rogers Kimball, the architect-in-chief of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Kimball also designed such extraordinary Omaha structures as the St. Cecilia Cathedral, the St. Francis Cabrini Church, and the Downtown Omaha Public Library. Construction of the McKesson-Robbins Warehouse was funded by Catherine B. Nash—one of Omaha’s wealthy elite—and completed around 1905.

Tilton adores the history of the building and especially likes the way it was renovated to make lofts in the 1980s. These condos still have some of the best views in Omaha of Downtown and the Riverfront. Tilton takes advantage of that view every New Year’s Eve when she hosts a small party in her loft. She and her guests are able to watch the fireworks from the comfort of her fourth-floor space.

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The parties shouldn’t be too much of a problem for other residents. “A lot of older buildings, especially warehouses, have very thin walls, and you can hear everything,” she says. “But I’ve never had a problem with noise since I’ve lived here.”

If she ever had an issue, Tilton says she is confident that management would take care of it right away. The responsive management, coupled with the sights of one of Omaha’s most alluring districts, is exactly why Tilton has lived in the Greenhouse for so long.

“I couldn’t be happier here,” she says. “Fourteen years later, I still get excited when I pull into the garage.”

How to Ride the River City Star

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The strains of “Folsom Prison Blues” as played by a one-man band is the perfect soundtrack to a riverboat tour. I bet there’s rich folks eating/In a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinkin’ coffee/And smokin’ big cigars. You are not those rich people, and this is not their sophisticated evening. This is where you embrace the river rat heritage bestowed upon you by dint of being in Omaha.

For the past eight years, the River City Star has hosted 60- and 90-minute cruises up and down the Missouri River from early April through mid-October. Just north of the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center and off of Gallup Drive, plastic palm trees and tropical trinkets guide you down a gangplank to a two-story riverboat. On blistering summer days, the kitschy décor fits.

Sightseeing tours happen every Sunday, no reservations required (but you really should anyway). Lunch and dinner cruises do require reservations and feature a cash bar and live entertainment, either by Win Lander or Joey Gulizia. Bartender Katie serves up Watermelons, exactly the drink that was so popular at the now-closed Anchor Inn. “It’s the drink on the river,” says Tami Bader, director of sales. “And there’s not a bit of watermelon in it.” Vodka and a few other liquors form the secret recipe.20130515_bs_6243_Web

Arrive. Early. If your dinner cruise is at 6:30 p.m., that means the River City Star pulls away from the dock at 6:30 p.m. Get there 15 minutes ahead of time to pick up your tickets at the office and get settled on the boat. Top floor definitely, if it’s a sunny day.

Take the time to soak in your surroundings. Stand at the back of the boat as it pushes off and watch as the twin John Deere diesel jet-drive engines froth up the water for the first time. If there’s a speaker on the sightseeing tour or live music during the dinner cruise, listen to it all. Try to get Lander to tell you why he doesn’t play Elvis.

The River City Star chugs north on the Missouri past the Illinois Central swing bridge, now permanently swung open. “The only way to see it now is from the boat,” Bader says. At Narrows River Park in Council Bluffs, the boat turns south to go underneath the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, breeze past the Downtown Omaha riverfront, and make a final turn just before Harrah’s Casino.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Depending on the day, your captain might be Stephen Hosch or Ken Merlin. Captain Hosch isn’t shy about divulging his knowledge of the river. As the River City Star trundles past Freedom Park within the first few minutes of the cruise, he waves his hand to encompass the variety of navy relics on the Nebraska shore. “That’s the Marlin there,” Captain Hosch says. “A ’50s training sub. And the Hazard over there, that’s a minesweeper from World War II. It supported a convoy in Okinawa. It was one of the few steel sweepers.” Incidentally, the USS Hazard is listing a tad these days, after floating on the 2011 flood that reached her on-shore resting place. When the flood finally receded, the Hazard settled back down at a bit of a tilt.

The Missouri is an adaptable lady, but if you look closely, you can still see the damage from the flood a couple years ago. Captain Hosch points out that the eddies swirling between manmade jetties and flood-deposits of sand may produce holes 20 feet deep underneath the river’s surface.

The Loess Hills are in perfect view at this point of the cruise, all golden with evening sun and accented by the earthy smell of the Missouri. As the River City Star turns south, a completely different view presents itself, the Downtown Omaha skyline.20130515_bs_6355_Web

It’s about this time that you should really head down to the buffet (if you’re on a dinner or lunch cruise) to enjoy some grilled barbecue chicken or roast beef, roasted potatoes or perhaps green beans with almonds. If you eat quickly, you can be done in time to see pedestrian reactions when Captain Hosch lets a kid sound the foghorn underneath the Pedestrian Bridge. Stay above deck to see how many swallows’ nests you can count, neatly lined up in the hundreds underneath the lip of the I-480 overpass.

On the way back north to the River City Star’s dock, Captain Hosch points out a channel cut into the Iowa bank. It may look like one of the Missouri’s natural changes in character, but the captain says it’s manmade, a place for catfish and sturgeon to lay eggs in safety. He’s seen deer, beaver, catfish, and huge paddlefish on his many tours up and down Omaha’s section of the river. “And have you seen all these geese?” he asks. “Looks like they’re all out dating tonight.”

The River City Star is inspected by the Coast Guard annually and certified for 149 passengers. Find the latest information on cruise times and prices at rivercitystar.com.

Q&A: Rebecca Harding

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha native and a principal with TACK Architects shares her passion for design, the people who inspire her, and the reasons she’s excited about working in her hometown.

Q: Tell us a bit about TACK Architects. What makes the firm unique?

A: We are an Omaha-based architectural studio founded in 2011 by Jeff Dolezal, Chris Houston, and myself. We’re a fairly young but tested firm, combining 45 years of experience between us. In that time, we’ve created thoughtful, unique projects, integrating our passion for detail and design. We work with a wide range of clients across the nation, providing works of architecture and interior design in the form of high-end residential, commercial, and cultural projects. TACK references a course of action, or method, in order to achieve a goal, especially one adopted through rigor and critical thinking. This is especially true of our work, where good design is a process that vets out and tests ideas. Our design philosophy explores notions or craft, tectonic expression, sustainability, and contextual specificity, while working hard to understand our client’s objectives, budget, expectations, culture, and mission.

Q: Where does the name “TACK” originate from?

A: We wanted to differentiate ourselves with something meaningful that referenced our work and disposition; something people would remember. Within the context of sailing, to “tack” means to change the direction of movement of the sail in order to maximize the benefit from the wind. We felt the term evoked a sense of freedom and determination. Leaving our comfortable corporate careers behind was scary, but exhilarating at the same time. The three of us have been friends and collaborators working on several projects together for over 10 years. We trusted each other’s talents and passion to build a company together at a pivotal time in all our lives.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue your career in Omaha?

A: Returning to Omaha in 1994, after receiving my Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University and traveling abroad over a six-year period, was a choice I made for several reasons. Omaha was at the inception of major architectural developments and making its mark as a changing and dynamic Midwestern city. The opportunity to begin my career with well-established architects was ripe and I was ready to reconnect with my roots. My time away from Nebraska and having the opportunity to study in places like Italy, Russia, and Scandinavia provided me with priceless educational experiences in different cultures and the ability to view works of art and architecture that have influenced me over the years. I returned to Omaha with an appreciation beyond my expectations. Omaha is a very special place where people are passionate and hardworking, with ethical beliefs in line with my own. As the city is in the process of expanding new redevelopment efforts, such as the Riverfront, Aksarben, and Downtown and North Omaha, I have the unique opportunity as an architect to help shape the future physical environments in and around Omaha that the next generations will enjoy for years to come.

From left: Ryan Henrickson, Rebecca Harding, Jeff Dolezal, and Chris Houston.

From left: Ryan Henrickson, Rebecca Harding, Jeff Dolezal, and Chris Houston.

Q: Any mentors that have influenced you? Other influences on your design tastes, methods?

A: My father is an oral surgeon and an amazing artist. As children, he used to show my sister and me some pretty gruesome slides of some of his surgeries. I was fascinated by how he could turn a mangled face back into something beautiful again. The precision with which he manipulated bone, muscle, and cartilage while controlling proportion and angles was magical. The combination of science and artistry was a concept I have been obsessed with since I can remember. The practice of architecture is very similar (although a life is not on the line). Other influences include Bauhaus architect, Le Corbusier, for his pure and streamlined designs in architecture and furniture; and Modernist architect, Sverre Fehn, for his sensitivity to context and beauty. Both of these elements can yield very diverse design solutions, but to me, they are very important to the foundations of architecture. It’s true that beauty is somewhat subjective, but beauty can be universal elements like proportion, scale, rhythm, etc. For me, it manifests itself in everything from a field of corn in the middle of summer (viewed from any elevation or angle), to the reflection of the sky in a puddle of water in the driveway.

Q: What are some trends you’re seeing in residential and/or commercial architectural design in Omaha?

A: When I first started practicing in Omaha 16 years ago, it was difficult to get clients to stretch out of their comfort zones. Reputation and trust comes from past projects and what you’re able to physically show the client that’s real. Most people have a hard time understanding abstract concepts or unusual materials until they see them, or can touch them. However, architecture isn’t just about design in the physical sense. We work with many clients on strategic facilities planning; where we help them make decisions on how much space they really need or can grow into. I think this type of service is what makes us really valuable, not just that we’re good designers but we also help people plan their projects and make good decisions at the beginning of the process. This planning works for most project types: residential, commercial, retail, corporate offices, etc. We definitely are seeing an upswing in the market right now.

Q: Tell us a bit about you personally. What do you enjoy in your leisure time?

A: I was born and raised in Omaha and attended Westside High School. I was a competitive figure skater up to about the age of 12. When I retired the skates, I took up many other sports and have continued to be active in my adult life. I enjoy running…Not only is it great exercise, it’s great therapy. The stresses of life and work seem to melt away with every step on the pavement. I hope to sign up for another marathon in 2013. I have been married to Brinker Harding for 13 years and have two daughters, Elizabeth (10) and Grace (7). I am truly blessed by them! They remind me what is really important in life—family, humility, love, joy.