City of Omaha planners want more newcomers to settle inside the Interstate 680 loop, saying it will create a more worker-friendly and less traffic-congested city over the next few decades.
Planning Director Rick Cunningham has built a presentation showing how increased population density in established parts of the city will help Omaha get the most out of $750 million it is projected to receive for infrastructure investments through 2035.
And he’s taking that presentation “on the road” to promote buy-in from the public and area officials.
“If we strive for the status quo,” Cunningham said, “we are already withering on the vine.”
While many of Cunningham’s points are contained in recent updates of the city’s lengthy master plan, the presentation includes new research and graphics that back the vision supported by consultants and the city’s planning staff.
The optimal route to a “sustainable” Omaha, one that would save dollars and energy, starts with encouraging more new residents to settle inside the I-680 loop, Cunningham said.
He said an underlying premise, shared by officials at the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, is that Douglas County will absorb, through migration and births, about 130,000 new residents by 2035.
If current policies and movement patterns continue, Cunningham said, 120,000 of those newcomers would settle into more suburban areas outside the I-680 loop, and only 10,000 would live inside.
Cunningham urges a shift. He’d have 30,000 of those new residents living inside the loop, and at least 20 percent of the 100,000 outsiders moving as close to the inner loop as possible.
Where would the 30,000 new residents go inside the I-680 loop? Cunningham counts about 15,000 vacant or condemned lots there — and suggests that many could be transformed into single-family residences.
Some in-fill development already is occurring with the help of public-private partnerships, and Cunningham said more of that is integral to achieving the plan’s goals. Buy-in from various agencies and entities is necessary and is not possible with just the Planning Department’s endorsement, he noted.
Tools that would help further the vision, Cunningham said, include passage of a Nebraska historic tax credit and “land bank” legislation; expansion of tax-increment financing and the so-called turn-back tax provision.
A shift in where housing development is happening would greatly reduce traffic congestion in west Omaha, Cunningham said, and allow more of the $750 million coming from various sources to go toward older and more established areas of the city.
Additionally, population density would be gained in areas where major employers exist. Residents then could be served by mass transit options that Cunningham said should be considered for Dodge Street — which would take some individual motorists off the roads and spare infrastructure wear and tear.
Public transit options include perhaps a streetcar line, bus rapid transit and improved traditional bus service. Bike lanes are another demand Cunningham said he hears about from Generation Y members who are considering where to live and work.
“If we’re not providing the kinds of living environments that these young professionals are looking for, it doesn’t matter what kinds of jobs we have, they won’t want to live here,” Cunningham said.
The idea, Cunningham said, is to extend the central business district beyond downtown — and create greater focus on the Dodge Street corridor.
Omaha is fortunate, city planners say, to already have employer-heavy “nodes” that could be connected by a public transit system. Those areas include downtown, midtown, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Aksarben Village and Crossroads Mall.
A study is under way to narrow down Omaha’s preferred mass transit upgrades on a stretch from downtown to midtown.
While Cunningham said he is not decrying suburban living, he and transportation planner Derek Miller said that unchecked westward sprawl means higher costs to extend municipal services and infrastructure.
Miller said redevelopment of eastern parts of the city would help ensure Omaha’s “20-minute city” reputation — meaning a motorist can get from one area of the city to another in 20 minutes or less.
Planners expect resistance, Cunningham said, from those who will assert that city planners want to dictate where they live, work and recreate. But he said his department is simply promoting a “concept,” based on trends and demographic changes, that policy-makers and the public should consider when determining Omaha’s growth.
Land use and other regulations already exist to guide development, Cunningham said. Future decisions should be made with “eyes wide open” and with all information available.
“Every decision we make in this city, and every policy we put in place, can have an impact on what it costs us to do business as a city,” he said.
Based on numerous outside rankings, Cunningham noted, Omaha already is recognized as having a high quality of life.
“We need to continue to understand these trends. Otherwise we’ll lose the edge we have.”
Contact the writer: