The Omaha neighborhood that’s not quite downtown and not quite Midtown has, for years, been hard to encapsulate.
You could identify it as home to several historic early 20th century buildings, such as the Rose Theater, Scottish Rite Cathedral, and the old Northern Natural Gas Headquarters building. A stretch on Farnam Street was once the busy “automotive row,” where you could find several car dealerships as well as car service shops. And pockets of the neighborhood are known for their less-than-rosy reputations as previous hot spots for crime, drug dealing, and prostitution.
Although the past has been a mixed bag for Omaha’s Park East neighborhood (situated east of Interstate 480), the future is looking like it will be more unified. The neighborhood—bounded by Dodge and Leavenworth from 20th to 28th streets—has a new name: The Quarters.
Several developers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the area to rehabilitate different buildings for residential or commercial use.
And the Park East Neighborhood Association is working on ideas to rebrand and market the area as a destination instead of just a necessary pass-through on the way to or from downtown or Midtown.
“We want to make the area not just somewhere you drive past,” says Ann Lawless, executive director of the Park East Neighborhood Association. “We want to make it a place you would want to stop, have dinner, or maybe even live.”
Until a few years ago, the neighborhood was more of a place to do business than anything else. Some of the area’s longtime businesses include All Makes Office Equipment, Physicians Mutual Insurance Co., and (until a couple of years ago) Barnhart Press. In addition, several nonprofits have called the area home, including Completely Kids (where Lawless works), Lutheran Family Services, Youth Emergency Services, the Salvation Army, the Rose Theater, and Joslyn Art Museum, among others.
Most of the residential housing consisted of apartments designed and priced for low-income or elderly residents before local developers began noticing the area’s potential a few years ago.
The area is “perfectly positioned between downtown Omaha/the Old Market and Midtown Crossing/UNMC,” says Dave Ulferts, an investor in Travers Row Houses, 11 buildings on 26th Street and St. Mary’s Avenue that were converted into modern dwellings.
Other new residential developments include Highline Apartments (once home to the old Northern Natural Gas Building) at 22nd and Dodge streets and the Flats on Howard (12 adjacent brick buildings) on 24th Street between Harney Street and Landon Court.
And the newer developments aren’t just housing. The $10 million Kountze Commons building at 26th and Douglas streets opened late last year. Even Hotel, an upscale hotel at 24th and Farnam streets, opened in 2016. The Kellogg building at 24th and Harney streets was rehabilitated to become a commercial space that now hosts businesses including Muglife Coffee Roastery, Greenstreet Cycles, Wag pet shop, and soon, a “cat café” called Felius.
“As a unique business, we wanted to set up shop in a unique area of town, one that was underdeveloped and a place where we could be a catalyst for positive change,” says Felius president and founder Bre Phelan. “The Quarters district was the perfect fit.”
With all the efforts to breathe new life into the area, Lawless says some of the developers suggested rebranding the area with a new name.
Ulferts says it was a “great journey” to decide on a new name, citing “multiple community listening sessions, surveys, brainstorming meetings, and even a professionally facilitated meeting…giving everyone the opportunity to have a voice was important.”
Lawless says “The Quarters” was chosen because it was catchy and inclusive, as opposed to rooted in a specific time or part of the neighborhood’s history.
But history is still important as the neighborhood continues to develop. Several developers have sought to incorporate aspects of the area’s early 20th century architecture in their projects.
“Many of the restorations in the area seek to maintain and enhance the existing character of the neighborhood,” says Adam Andrews, AIA, architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture and board president of Restoration Exchange Omaha.
Andrews cites the exterior lighting and landscape of the Flats on Howard, which mimics the originals, and the tinted window glazing and public entrance lobby at Highline Apartments, which was restored to its original condition. Ulferts says when refurbishing Travers Row, the original granite curbs were salvaged and repurposed for the retaining walls in the development’s green space.
More residential properties are in the works. More commercial businesses are on their way. As more developers and businesses seek to rejuvenate the area, Andrews says he hopes this desire to restore and preserve continues.
Ten years from now, Ulferts says he hopes the area will be walkable and well-lit, with community gardens on almost every corner, and neighborhood events for residents, business owners, and their employees.
Ulferts acknowledges that it will take a lot more work before the neighborhood gets to that point.
“I’d describe the general feel as we’re ‘up and coming,’” he says. “One could make an argument that we have a long way to go, so I’m glad to be part of a neighborhood association focused on overall improvement.”
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of OmahaHome.