In a way, the movement to make Omaha look a little less like everywhere else began in a most unlikely place.
But in 2003, it wasn't yet a Walmart, just a big patch of green space in the Millard area. The plan for the site near 132nd and L Streets was a big, basic, box-shaped building, complete with a tall retaining wall that would block the view from the road.
When an Omaha Planning Board member asked why Walmart couldn't do something a bit more appealing, as it had in other cities, the answer was simple.
We follow design standards, a company attorney told the city. You don't have any.
A decade later, things have changed. The conversation about Walmart caught the attention of a project called Lively Omaha. Supporters helped draft the rules that now determine how developers build chain stores and shopping malls and sidewalks. And now, that project is Omaha By Design, a nonprofit organization of its own with broad goals, including environmentally friendly design and historic preservation.
With a new mayor in office, the group is pushing to get more people onboard with its message — including some developers and city leaders who believe that adding standards can hinder economic development in a city that needs to keep moving.
Mayor Jean Stothert, who has goals of shaking up the Planning Department and removing hurdles for development, wants more flexibility for developers and is urging caution about the city's design rules. While she supports having design guidelines, she worries that the city may be asking too much — and driving companies to go elsewhere.
“One size doesn't fit all,” she said. “Every project is unique, and I think we need to recognize that, and recognize that in our design standards, too.”
Omaha By Design, meanwhile, remains confident that its work has done more than dress up storefronts and put more green around shopping malls and intersections. The group says that it will take time but that more people — including some developers — are coming around to a different way of thinking.
“It's changed how people look at their environment,” said Del Weber, the group's board president.
At first, the people behind Omaha By Design weren't sure that the city was ready for that kind of change. With $800,000 in private funding, organizers began drawing up plans for design standards and initial projects like an overhaul of the Gene Leahy Mall downtown.
They set up public meetings and expected that a small number of people might show up to listen and offer input.
They quickly realized they had underestimated how much Omahans care about the look and feel of their streets and parks and commercial areas.
More than 100 people showed up for the first meeting.
In the months that followed, planners, developers, neighborhood leaders and others sorted out the good, the bad and the ugly in Omaha design.
Omaha By Design liked the wide, tree-lined streets in Dundee and the open, green spaces and balanced design of the One Pacific Place shopping center.
On the bad list: crowded, mismatched stretches of commercial streets, like Dodge Street between 36th and 50th Streets, and standard-issue commercial buildings that did little to match their surroundings, like the Walgreens at 30th and Dodge Streets.
In 2004, the City Council gave its OK to the group's goals, but it took three more years before it put the new urban design regulations on the books.
The new rules meant that Walmart — and anybody else looking to put up a large retail building — would be able to use only certain materials for the facade.
Intersections would have to provide room for green space, rather than parking lots or buildings up close to the road. Shopping centers would have to come with public spaces and landscaping, rather than just buildings dropped in a sea of asphalt.
The rules were translated into full-scale new developments, such as Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village, places that came with parks and wide sidewalks and buildings that hid parking lots from view. The rules also were front and center as new buildings popped up in the once-industrial area just north of downtown, near the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park.
Sometimes they were most obvious in new buildings that went up in established neighborhoods.
There's the Aldi Food Market at 30th Street and Sorensen Parkway, outfitted in brick, with plenty of windows and surrounded by green space. There's the McDonald's at 24th and Cuming Streets, standing out with its modern shape and redesigned drive-thru lanes.
Connie Spellman, the director of Omaha By Design, said it didn't take long before conversations like the one between the Walmart attorney and the Planning Board were a thing of the past.
When Target decided to move to the Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge Streets, the company didn't attempt a bottom-of-the-barrel design.
“They said, 'What are the guidelines?' ” Spellman said. “And they just followed them.”
But it's not always a smooth process.
Some developers have pushed back. John Fullenkamp, a development attorney who was part of an Omaha By Design technical committee, said some companies have been put off by rules that require clusters of buildings, rather than stand-alone facilities with parking lots. Others were wary of putting up buildings that would look noticeably different from their stores in other cities.
“There are certain things that a lot of companies put pride in and spend a tremendous amount of pride designing the concepts of their buildings,” he said. “And they're willing to fit in as much as they can, but you don't want to tell Best Buy that they can't have that blue triangle on their building, for example.”
Larry Jobeun, another attorney who has worked on many large-scale developments around the city, said the rules about grouping buildings together have been an issue in developments of all sizes. On a small piece of property, multiple buildings can be a particular challenge.
He noted that some of the standards led by Omaha By Design were actually part of the city's master plan before the design standards were implemented. He said many of them are good ideas but can make for heavy lifting, especially in the eastern half of the city, where the focus is on redevelopment, not building from scratch in a cornfield.
“It's easy to go out and do a greenfield development and comply with all these things,” he said. “It's not as easy to do an infill project and comply with the urban design code. That's where you're going to run into problems.”
Stothert said the city's design standards were a key factor in a developer's decision last fall not to build a new Sam's Club near 147th Street and West Maple Road in northwest Omaha. She said she plans to reach out to the company with a clear message: My administration will not handle this the same way.
“I want to see if there is a possibility of getting them back, saying we have a new mayor now, new leadership in the Planning Department,” she said. “We want to approach things differently, and we do want to make things happen.”
The mayor said she wants Omaha By Design to reconvene a technical advisory committee that was supposed to periodically review and adjust the city's design rules. The group last discussed the standards in 2011.
Spellman agrees. She said her group is working to add new members to better reflect the current design community.
Stothert wants the city to have rules that are both more flexible and more clear-cut. She said the CVS pharmacy built at 49th and Dodge Streets is an example of how the process can go too far.
In that case, neighbors pushed the City Council to go beyond the established rules to ensure that the building wouldn't stand out in a neighborhood made up of older homes and commercial buildings.
“The neighbors would come back with another design, the neighbors would say they wanted more, and so it got to the point where I thought (the CVS developers) were going to turn them down, after they spent all this extra money,” Stothert said. “I think we've got to be really clear — if they meet these standards, they will be able to develop.”
Spellman, however, sees the CVS story in a different way.
She said the back-and-forth between the neighborhood and the developer was proof that Omahans are taking pride in their community, are willing to ask for more — and are able to get it.
“Sometimes people want to come in and do what they do historically, but we know most of the chains have different levels that they do in different cities,” Spellman said. “They respond to community standards and politics. We have the baseline, and we have a lot of neighborhoods that really care and want to have even more. That's their prerogative.”
David Levy, a development attorney who serves as chairman of Omaha By Design's advisory committee, said it's true that some developers may choose to go elsewhere because of Omaha's rules. But the point, he said, isn't making sure everyone will choose Omaha.
“When the sole goal is to make it easy to do something in a place regardless of anything else, that competition sort of never ends,” he said. “And that's true with either relaxing standards or creating incentives that are not tied to some other benefit or consideration. If I offer you $5 to build something in Omaha, someone can offer you $10 to build something in Sarpy County, then I offer you $15 to build in Omaha.”
Levy said developers become increasingly interested in cities that make a habit of building in careful ways.
“If I make it attractive to develop in Omaha, through consideration of things — attractive communities, walkable streets, desirable neighborhoods — those are things that are much more lasting, much more sustainable,” he said. “They cannot be easily repeated in a series of a race to the bottom.”
Fans and critics of the group's work are keeping close watch on Stothert as she prepares to appoint a planning director.
The mayor said she has already interviewed a few candidates and plans to begin a national search. She has already shifted some high-level planning employees to new positions.
Stothert said the person she selects must be able to make the rules work when there are new projects on the table.
“A good planning director, in my opinion, is not a 'yes' person,” she said. “They have to say no, but they are there to help the developers succeed. That's what they need to do. They need to be flexible enough to help them meet the codes and give them multiple ways to do that.”