A midtown Omaha business property that once fed Ak-Sar-Ben race ponies has become a stomping ground for children and families, now transformed into nearly 15 new homes.
A few miles away at 96th Street and West Center Road, a former construction yard is about to be resurrected as a cluster of eight cottage-style houses.
And his grandparents' ranch home that Doug Dreessen remembers in the 1960s as being on the outer edge of town (132nd and West Center) was razed last week to make way for 17 smaller houses tailored for baby boomers.
The recent wave of infill residential pockets reflects what developers and city planners say is a growing demand for new housing nearer to Omaha's core and established neighborhoods, and within walking distance to grocers, strip shopping centers and recreation.
Such newly constructed or planned single-family residences — at the former Sheppard Hay & Feed property near 60th and Spring Streets, the old Grothe construction yard site and Dreessen family property — follow an already booming market for apartment living in mid- and downtown.
“Millennials love urban living,” said David Fanslau of the City Planning Department. “So we expect midtown, downtown housing development to continue to increase. We think it's going to remain strong.”
To be sure, new and sprawling housing developments also are popping up at a swift pace on the suburban fringes of the city. But building homes in older neighborhoods is welcomed by city planners for multiple reasons.
Literally, infill housing fills gaps and can strengthen the fabric of a neighborhood by helping to make it fuller and more active.
“As you grow at the perimeter, which is easier to do, the center begins to suffer and certain parts of your city will dry up and atrophy,” said Jed Moulton, Omaha's urban design manager.
Stretching a city's boundaries with new neighborhoods creates a need for more streets, police and fire units and other infrastructure.
“When you do infill, your roads and utilities are there, you're refreshing and re-utilizing,” Moulton said. “So promoting infill is just a smart economic strategy for keeping costs down.”
As developers attest, though, building in older parts of town comes with particular challenges.
Take the proposed Cottages of Oakdale at 96th Street and West Center Road, which developer Essex Communities calls a fresh and unique approach to infill development. For months, Essex has worked to get the project off the ground, including obtaining waivers related to city regulations governing fence heights, garages and property line setbacks.
Essex donated 17 feet of land for future expansion of 96th Street but continues to grapple with public works officials over the size of driveways that aren't roomy enough for a large garbage truck to turn around in.
“Because it's infill, you only have a finite amount of land,” said Jerry Slusky, Essex's lawyer. “It's tough to meet the rezoning requirements of an infill site.”
Moulton knows it can be challenging to pull off infill housing, which he calls second or third-generation development, as opposed to building anew on a greenfield. So, he said the city is seeking adjustments of the zoning code to make it easier.
When Jay Incontro set out to build homes on the former Sheppard land, a city planner and public works official met him at the 2.5-acre site, were supportive of his effort, and helped smooth kinks involved in extending a public street, adding utilities and regrading. By then, the main animal supply store had been razed and four homes were standing.
Incontro said that while infill redevelopment requires more interaction with public officials and boards, he has witnessed its value and the growing demand from families seeking to live closer to mid- and downtown. Also benefiting his project is the nearby Aksarben Village redevelopment, easy access to the Interstate and the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.
“People love the idea of the old neighborhoods, the character of the trees,” Incontro said. “This is just a solid neighborhood.”
While on hold during the housing slowdown, Incontro's project picked up and several residents moved in during the past year. Three lots are yet to be built upon. In all, there will be 14 new homes (including two duplexes) ranging from about $130,000 to $180,000.
Developer Jerry Reimer said he sees demand brewing for single-family homes in the same urban setting where he rehabbed more than 350 midtown apartments. Houses seem a natural step, he said, for some of the young apartment dwellers now attached to living near the city's core.
The challenge, said he and others, is finding enough land where a developer can cluster homes and make new construction financially feasible.
“It's almost an oxymoron,” Reimer said. “Midtown, urban and vacant tract.”
Some developers have turned to major rehabilitation of housing clustered on inner city blocks. Harvest Development I, for example, bought an entire city block near 21st and Vinton Streets and is stripping 20 small houses to their shells to rebuild and package into a mini-village of rental homes. Financiers David Ulferts and Jeff Royal are totally restoring 11 historic brick buildings near 26th Street and St. Mary's Avenue into 24 rental dwellings with high-end finishes.
Others, including former City Councilman Subby Anzaldo, promote infill development by buying and building on single or double lots.
Within the past five years, Anzaldo said he has constructed about 35 homes throughout South Omaha, typically on vacant parcels previously occupied by a foreclosed or condemned house. He and Incontro also teamed up to build an eight-unit condo building on distressed land by Spring Lake Park.
“Once you build or improve, it goes back on the tax rolls and is absolutely good for the city,” Anzaldo said. “And it is good for the buyer who needs good, clean, newer housing.”
Even farther west in newer parts of Omaha, city officials welcome new housing that adds density.
After hearing the pitch for the Cottages of Oakdale, city planner Fanslau recalls urging representatives of Essex Communities to find more sites for similar clustered housing, especially inside the Interstate 680 loop.
“Vacant lots aren't doing anybody any favors,” he said. “It makes sense to redevelop those lots and bring them back.”
When completed, the Cottages project will contain eight houses, each with its own yard and front porch facing a common green area. A common building will offer such amenities as a work room and fire pit area.
While not age-restricted, the homes that will sell for around $400,000 likely will appeal to the empty-nester wanting to downsize and be near stores, a golf course and activities, said Kent Braasch of Essex.
Braasch said he became familiar with the cottage-style development — smaller houses with unique designs and organized around a courtyard — while visiting Seattle.
“The concept won't be for everybody,” he said. “It will be for people who want a sense of community.”
At the former Dreessen property, the soon-to-be-built 17 upscale homes also will aim for the growing demographic of baby boomers or empty-nesters.
Lawn work and snow removal would be taken care of by an association. A walking path will lead residents to the neighboring public library. A YMCA, restaurants and shopping are also nearby.
“You've got pretty much everything you could want,” said Dreessen, who recalled porch-sitting at the same spot with his grandparents as a boy in the 1960s. Then, he could see the far-away lights of the city to the east.
Today, the nearly four-acre site is surrounded by the hallmarks of suburban development — strip malls, a library, a church and split-level homes on lots an eighth of an acre.
And now Dreessen, a 52-year-old civil engineer, is involved in the redevelopment of the property his grandparents later handed down to his father and aunt. Dreessen's firm, TD2 Engineering & Surveying, founded by his father, Robert Dreessen, also was involved in an infill project near 25th and Blondo Streets, in which five homes were built on vacant lots.
Last week, a crew demolished the old house built by Arthur and Henrietta Dreessen; the lots are expected to be ready for building by spring. Though feeling nostalgic, Dreessen expects the denser infill development to be a better fit with its surroundings.
“I think the city's looking to have some of these underutilized areas developed so we get a little better density in the city, as opposed to, keep expanding in all directions.”