For 17 years, Omaha's old Lerner building largely sat vacant on a main downtown street, the target of redevelopment ideas that never came to be, including two that called for a wrecking ball.
Now the 1947 structure where young fashionistas once shopped and actors once performed seems on its most solid path yet to regaining life.
New owners have secured financing to build three stories atop the existing two floors at 16th and Harney Streets, a construction move they say is rare in Omaha. In addition to about 40 market-rate apartments, the renovation plans call for street-level retail shops and perhaps a restaurant where Orpheum Theater-goers could grab a bite before or after a show.
“We're hoping this will re-energize downtown's 16th Street,” said Ted Seldin of Seldin Co., a partner in the project with Dicon Corp.
He and Dicon's Royce Maynard said that revved-up demand for downtown apartment living, along with city-driven plans to revitalize the worn 16th “streetscape,” made this an opportune time for the estimated $5.48 million project.
A few pieces remain to be settled, they said, but Seldin and Maynard are confident construction could begin as early as this fall.
“This is our business,” Seldin said. “We do renovation regularly.”
The project — named “The District Urban Lofts” in part to evoke the feel of a theater district — has received approval by the City Council and Planning Board for nearly $1 million in tax-increment funds, or those generated by the increase in property taxes resulting from the improvements.
Omaha's Alley Poyner Macchietto is drawing up final architectural renderings. Turnpost Creative Group is working on marketing. Jeff Reiner of Turnpost said walking distance to three theaters (the Orpheum, Rose and Holland Performing Arts Center) helped inspired “The District” name, which also is intended to reflect the structure's urban and central locale.
While City Planner Bridget Hadley said she wasn't familiar with all of the property's past revival attempts, she said that city leaders take the current players and their vision seriously.
“When they come to us, we take them for what they know and can do — especially the Seldins, they have a track record.”
She also said that Dicon's commitment to downtown is demonstrated in its current renovation of the seven-story Barker Building at 15th and Farnam Streets — another downtown icon that has been boarded up since 1999. That former office property is being revamped into about 48 apartments and retail stores.
Maynard said that after the Barker and renovated four-diamond Hotel Deco XV jazz up the 15th Street corridor from Harney to Farnam Streets, the next logical step was to redevelop the parallel stretch of 16th Street and the Lerner building. “We feel (The District) could be the first project from the Orpheum going north to potentially revitalize that block.”
Commercial tenants have yet to be secured. Maynard and Seldin said the best chance at success depends on the city's follow-through on a proposed redesign of 16th Street from Dodge to Leavenworth first announced more than two years ago.
Plans in part call for the return of street parking, the narrowing of the wide brick sidewalks and creation of a plaza design outside the Orpheum.
City bus operator Metro also plans to move its downtown transit center farther north near 16th and Cass Streets, taking a stream of buses off the 16th Street stretch.
Complete funding of the $5 million to $7 million redesign has not been identified, said city urban design manager Jed Moulton. However, he said that bids are being sought for an engineer, and work likely will be phased in as money allows.
Said Maynard: “Putting the parking back is really important.”
He and Seldin Co. bought the Lerner building earlier this year for $157,500 from the City of Omaha, which had received it as a donation in 1995.
For decades prior to the donation, the brick building was known as the site of Brodkey Jewelry and the Lerner Shops clothing store. Lerner moved out in 1989, and subleased the property to the Omaha Magic Theater.
The theater operated for a short while under city ownership, said city planner Chris Wayne, but mostly kept records and props in the building, including a huge foam whale.
Twice, the building dodged demolition. In 1996, the city had plans to tear it down to make way for a temporary surface parking lot. Three years later, as NuStyle Development was buying notable downtown buildings, it talked of reviving the plan to raze the building and build a parking garage.
Wayne said the city for years has wanted something to happen on that site, but recognized the barriers, including the lack of windows on the second floor and, later, a faltering economy.
“It was a really hard building to reuse,” he said.
In 2004 and 2005, the Seattle-based Heritage Affordable Housing targeted the Lerner property for a grocery and upscale condos. Heritage's president Richard Sontgerath later would say that he struck out on securing a grocer and stopped pursuing the purchase.
Maynard was working with Sontgerath on that project, and said he always remained interested in the Lerner property. Once final drawings are in hand, they'll apply for the building permit.
“For many years we have thought that was a good corner, given its location by the Orpheum,” he said. “All indications are this is moving forward.”
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