Downtown Omaha turns extra magical the evening of Nov. 22, thanks to the annual ceremony for the Holiday Lights Festival. Festive lights will illuminate the mall until New Year’s Day.
The mall’s next transformation will follow the lights turning off, with the scenic landscape rising to street level. Demolition of the Gene Leahy Mall is scheduled to begin in the spring.
The mall’s sunken green slopes and paths leading down to the lagoon will disappear under a pile of dirt and new amenities, according to the current master plan for the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project (available at riverfrontrevitalization.com).
The famous American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the mall in the ’60s, in conjunction with Omaha-based architectural firm BVH. Then known as the “Central Park Mall,” it was the first phase of City Planning Director Alden Aust’s vision for Omaha’s “return to the river,” an initiative funded by federal grants and informed by public consultation.
The Gene Leahy Mall is one of five areas targeted by the current public-private Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Total cost for the project (including the mall) is anticipated at $290 million (with the bulk of funding coming from private and philanthropic investment). Mayor Jean Stothert has committed the city to $50 million on the project, which includes Lewis & Clark Landing and Heartland of America Park in Omaha. The rest of the development spans the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River.
Proponents of flattening the Gene Leahy Mall argue the mall in its current form disconnects the Old Market from north downtown and various developments there: the Holland Performing Arts Center, CHI Health Center Omaha, the new Capitol District area, and other proposed developments (including Kiewit’s new headquarters).
Flattening the mall, advocates say, will make the area safer for police to monitor while also creating more space for amenities and programming. In turn, the altered space will help make downtown more attractive for developers and residents, while also helping local corporations attract and retain talent.
But the plan is not universally accepted by the community. Gary Bowen was one of the architects at BVH working with Halprin’s office to conceptualize and construct the Gene Leahy Mall. He applauds most of the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization’s master plan, but is concerned about the demolition of the mall outlined in the master plan announced June 12.
“The remaining portion of the current proposed plan [east of the mall] is appropriate and worth the investment. That is the part of our downtown that needs help,” Bowen says. “But the Leahy Mall needs to be updated—not scrapped—to respond to the changing scene downtown.”
Bowen worked with Omaha Parks & Recreation staff and the Downtown Improvement District to create a 2014 proposal to update the mall (proposing the addition of an amphitheater, new activity spaces, an enlarged playground, and an additional pedestrian bridge across the mall). But the plans stalled without action from the city.
The 2014 plan from BVH would have preserved the integrity of the green space and lagoon while adding the new amenities at a projected cost of $20 million. Instead, the city pursued a less comprehensive update for $1.8 million that removed the mall’s walled sidewalk barriers to improve visibility for the sake of public safety.
“The original cost of creating the Gene Leahy mall exceeded $20 million. In today’s dollars, that value would be approximately $45-50 million, inflated at a modest 3 percent annually,” Bowen says. “To throw away that investment and add another proposed amount, will the end result justify that kind of cost? I think not.”
He continues: “The mall has become an iconic symbol of Omaha. How many times do we see it pictured on a website, a postcard, a calendar? People get married there, and people come from all over to enjoy the natural beauty. The current scenario seems eerily familiar to the attempt to take Elmwood Park for UNO parking, or taking Jobbers Canyon for ConAgra.”
But short of any public outcry in support of the mall’s conservation, the Gene Leahy Mall’s fate seems certain—buried.
Read more of Bowen’s counterpoint to plans to demolish the Gene Leahy Mall online
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Best of Omaha Soirée
(Thursday, Nov. 8)
Join us in celebrating winners of the Best of Omaha contest. The event will feature food and beverages from winners, and live entertainment. Location: Omaha Design Center. Dress code: business chic. Age restriction: 21 and older. Ticket price: $60 VIP (6-7 p.m. pre-entry with free valet parking), $40 general admission (7-10 p.m.). Purchase tickets at localstubs.com.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.