Downtown Omaha's Gene Leahy Mall looks like a giant mud puddle crawling with construction equipment now, but it will have its sparkle on by Thanksgiving.
A renovation of the park and its lagoon is behind schedule. Even so, Omaha Parks Director Brook Bench and Mayor Jean Stothert plan to throw the switch that sets downtown trees aglow on Nov. 28, Thanksgiving, during the annual opening ceremony of Omaha's Holiday Lights Festival.
It will be sort of like putting a Christmas tree in its traditional living room location, even though the walls are still open for a home improvement project.
In the case of the Leahy Mall, Omaha's living room is built around a large lagoon, to which time has been unkind. Overhauling the lagoon is a major part of the $1.8 million renovation of the 10-acre park, which is being completed with $600,000 from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
Bench and a construction company official said they are doing all they can to have the work substantially complete by Nov. 28, the deadline in All Purpose Construction's contract with the city.
Crews are working long hours, but a wet spring and fall rains have put the work about a month behind, said Debra Mathews, president of La Vista-based All Purpose.
Parts of the park won't be open for strolls, and the lagoon is unlikely to be filled by then. But event manager Vic Gutman said all systems are go for Holiday Lights Festival activities. Those include the CenturyLink Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Nov. 28 at 14th and Farnam Streets.
Crews have strung lights in the trees along streets beside Leahy Mall, Bench said. He said the city is trying to coordinate with contractors to string trees that are closer to the lagoon.
The park renovation began in March. It includes dredging the lagoon, then building a better bottom by blending a mineral called bentonite with the local soil and compacting the mixture to create a liner.
All Purpose Construction has completed those steps, Mathews said.
New concrete walls have been built for the lagoon, and reconstruction of limestone walls has begun. Crews will also install a system to agitate the water.
Bench said all those things should improve the water quality in the lagoon.
The dredging removed 4 to 5 feet of silt and mud.
“It was so silted in before that in most spots it was less than a foot deep,” Bench said.
The renovated lagoon will be about 5 feet deep.
The rebuilt lagoon bottom will reduce silt intrusion and water loss, Mathews said. The new walls will prevent silt and contaminants from entering the water from the sides, she said.
Agitating the water, Bench said, “will keep the water moving, so it's not sitting still and becoming stagnant.” That should reduce algae growth in the lagoon.
Crews later will install new concrete walks and lighting.
Completion of final grading and landscaping may be affected by the weather, Mathews said.
The dirt work in the lagoon bed came first, and Omaha's wet spring delayed it. Fall rains have made work difficult recently, and the new liner hasn't helped, because the lagoon holds water better.
The city's contract with All Purpose imposes penalties if it doesn't finish the work on time. The city timed the project to begin in March with the goal of it being completed by Thanksgiving, Bench said. City officials are pushing the contractors to finish the work on time, he said.
“It's a mudhole down there,” Bench said. “It's difficult to work (after rains). It holds water, and then they have to pump it out. ...
“They're doing everything they can.”
Under the boardwalk, nothing to sing about
Crews renovating the Gene Leahy Mall found an unpleasant surprise when they lifted a boardwalk on the water's edge.
The walk's wooden and steel supports were rotted, rusted and otherwise ruined.
“We can't just put the boards back over it,” Omaha Parks Director Brook Bench said.
City officials are figuring out what to do. They may design, engineer and build a new boardwalk, Bench said.
That's not in the scope of the current renovation contract, he said. It would have to be put out for bids and go to the City Council.
In the short term, the city and its contractors plan to divert walkways around the boardwalk area.