It's taken months, but part of Gene Leahy Mall will soon be fenced off for the city to begin some of the most substantial renovations in the downtown park's history.
When completed, the former Central Park Mall should be a fresh green space for downtown — including new trails and lighting and an overhauled lagoon.
“It's just going to have a whole new, fresh look,” said Brook Bench, the city's parks director. “It's going to be nice, it's going to be new.”
Parks officials hoped to launch the project last year, but they heard interest from a single contractor, which wanted more money than the city could afford.
This month, five new bids for the project ranged from about $1.7 million to $2 million — far closer to the roughly $1.5 million in city funds and grant money from the Nebraska Environmental Trust earmarked for work on the 10-acre park. A contract for the work must still be formally awarded.
Bench said construction will take six to eight months, but it could proceed faster if weather permits.
“There isn't another good time to do it,” Bench said. “It's not getting any better, it's getting worse.”
A timeline for the project is still being determined, but it will change the look of the park dramatically as the lagoon is drained and construction crews move in and out of the site. Bench said the Parks Department will work with contractors to minimize the project's impact on events such as the Summer Arts Festival.
When the city solicited bids for the project last year, parks officials said contractors were partly dissuaded by concerns that the park's soil was contaminated with pollutants. Some contractors also were put off by uncertainty over the leaky lagoon.
But soil tests showed no contamination, Bench said, which slashed the price tag for the project and allows the city to recycle dirt from the site for renovations at South Omaha's Lynch Park.
Other improvements could come to the downtown park, as well, during the course of construction, Bench said. That could include softening the site's steep slopes in an effort to bring in more recreation space.
“When people see it when it's done, they're going to say 'Geez, why didn't we do this a long time ago?'” Bench said of the park. “That's my goal.”
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