Omaha, to its credit, has been a practical-minded city when it comes to economic development.
Omaha stands out for its private-sector vitality, but it also has put in place forward-looking regulations that set appropriate guidance on community appearance and zoning.
When a city succeeds in striking that sensible balance, it’s a win-win situation. Omaha gets new jobs and new amenities (stores, offices, homes, apartments). It also gets development that enhances the look of the city and allows development to unfold in logical fashion as part of a citywide planning vision.
It’s crucial for Omaha to get that balance right. When it does, an added benefit is that Omaha burnishes its national reputation as a vibrant, enterprising city.
The Omaha Planning Department — one of the most powerful arms of local government — has an important role to play in all of this. The recent elections for mayor and City Council put the spotlight on the department, and Jean Stothert, Omaha’s incoming mayor, rightly stressed that city regulators need to make sure they carry out their duties in ways that facilitate rather than stifle private-sector business opportunities.
Making sure the Planning Department handles development issues in a reasonable, balanced way needs to be a priority for the new Stothert administration.
As recent reporting by World-Herald staff writer Juan Perez Jr. noted, it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that delays and frustrations have arisen from the Planning Department’s handling of individual development projects.
“It always feels like an ‘us and them’ situation,” Jerry Slusky, a local development attorney, told Perez.
“The bottom line is that private developers are apprehensive to develop anything in Omaha because of the struggle and angst of dealing with city planning,” developer Nancy Mammel said.
No one denies that the Planning Department has a complicated task in trying to enforce city regulations. And businesses, for their part, have their own responsibilities in following the existing codes. The days in Omaha when individual businesses could throw up a building with little or no thought to community appearance are gone, for example, and that’s a positive step.
All that said, the fact remains that the Planning Department has critical responsibilities on these matters and needs to be wide awake to them.
City regulators in Omaha too often are known for giving reasons to say “no” to projects when what they need to do is find appropriate ways to say “yes.” The department needs to turn that around.
Such common-sense flexibility is what a practical-minded city like Omaha expects and needs from its city Planning Department.