He holed up in a downtown office building that is long gone now, demolished to make room for progress.
He sketched without 3-D modeling software and wrote without Word and brainstormed decades before Google.
A 33-year-old named Gerold Klein dreamed deep into the night almost every night in 1973. His synapses fired, and his focus sharpened, and all that year the project simply came out of the young architect at DLR Group. It poured out like it had been inside of him his whole life.
What if we could connect downtown Omaha to the Missouri River, using a series of pedestrian plazas?
What if we could live on the river, shop there, sail there and plan a romantic weekend in a hotel penthouse with a view of the entire city?
What if I design a project that is angular and vertical and new, and what if it transforms Omaha?
“I was really trying to do something,” Klein says today. “I was trying to energize people in this city. ... I was trying to elevate the thinking about what we could be downtown.”
What Klein produced in the wee hours of 1973 was the proposal for a massive $65 million riverfront project named “Marina City.”
Marina City is perhaps the most fascinating piece of a fascinating yearlong project that involved then-Mayor Gene Leahy, the City Planning Department and young architects from every firm in the city.
The goal: Kick-start Omaha's dying downtown.
“It was one big gang of young people trying to get things off-center,” Klein says.
Marina City was a little more than off-center: It was an architectural shock paddle to the city's chest. Triangles and terraces. Downtown living and walk-to-work convenience. “Vibrant and timeless,” says current DLR principal Mark Brim as he looks at the plans scattered on DLR's Omaha conference room table.
Of course, Marina City exists only on the paper that sits on this conference room table. It never became reality. Too big. Too costly. Too much.
Instead, in 1989, the Jobbers Canyon warehouse area was demolished — Marina City would have kept much of Jobbers Canyon intact — to make way for a gleaming, 300,000-square-foot headquarters for ConAgra.
Instead, two condo towers, green space, one restaurant whose doors are currently closed and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge sit near the site that Klein once dreamed of making Marina City.
“I think it might have been a little ahead of its time,” Klein says, pointing out that Omaha was smaller and less affluent in 1973 and didn't have things like a new downtown arena or a vibrant Old Market.
“It's funny, because this is the kind of thing that is going on today,” Brim says.
You can actually see Marina City today, or pretty much every other day between now and the end of April. Kaneko and the Nebraska Arts Council are sponsoring an exhibit called “Unrealized Projects,” allowing four major Omaha architectural firms to show beautiful plans that never came to be.
The design of the now-dead Wall Street Tower will be there. So will at least one discarded plan to transform north downtown.
And Marina City will be there, with its grandiose name and its eye-opening sketches that make you think about what might have been.
Marina City has triangular-shaped apartment buildings that look terraced and offer views up and down the river.
Marina City features two towering multi-use structures that include retail space, condos and a hotel. The top of the towers are glass-enclosed and give you a panoramic view of the entire city.
Marina City extends something called the-then theoretical Central Park Mall — now real and known as the Gene Leahy Mall — into the riverfront area. In the Marina City vision, the mall connects the riverfront to the Old Market with three pedestrian plazas.
Marina City, as the name implies, has an actual marina, created by moving the existing levee inland and creating a body of water that could be used by the public.
The Army Corps of Engineers wasn't wild about this last idea.
Everyone else loved Marina City when Klein finished his year's worth of planning. Longtime City Planner Alden Aust loved it. Mayor Gene Leahy loved it. But the truth, the now-retired architect says, is that no one — not even Klein himself — ever really believed it would get built.
Today Klein believes that Marina City and the 1973 Central Business District project it was a part of did accomplish something for Omaha. True, nothing but the Gene Leahy Mall ever got built, and even that didn't work out as the group originally intended.
But today, big swaths of downtown Omaha are thriving, and Klein connects that success all the way back to when he and other architects gathered and planned in 1973.
“Projects like this change people's mindsets,” he says. “Think about how far we've come! There's still a few steps to go.”
Still, Klein admits, he occasionally thinks about what could have been if the project had found some major funding. Maybe it could have been built step by step.
The other night, Klein was watching a tenor sing on television. The camera flashed to a shot of the performance site, the Harbor of Portofino, Italy. The retired architect sat up in his chair and thought, “That looks a little like Marina City.”
“Was that harbor your inspiration for Marina City?” I ask.
No, he says. My inspiration was right here.
Klein points to his head.
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