A new half-million-dollar house — specially designed for construction on a longtime vacant lot east of 42nd Street — might ordinarily be embraced by one of Omaha's oldest neighborhoods.
But the welcome wagon has been anything but rolling in the historic North Gold Coast area, where the uncharacteristically contemporary-style residence is trying to fit in on mansion row.
“This is a very unusual event,” Jed Moulton, Omaha's urban design manager, said of the case embroiling a city board, a deep-rooted neighborhood and the dream home of an upwardly mobile young couple. “It ultimately comes down to subjective criteria of value and impact.”
A decision could come Nov. 13 when the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission is to consider the latest in a series of architectural plans that have been presented, picked apart and redrawn over the past three months.
At the center of the debate over the controversial house to be constructed at 403 N. 38th St. are Charlie Yin and his wife, Jennifer Cooke-Yin, who adore urban Omaha and want to raise a family there.
The Yins, ages 35 and 28, currently live in an Old Market loft, near one of the Hiro restaurants he's a partner in and her law firm. Seeking a bigger residential space in a child-friendly environment also close to downtown, the couple came upon the lot that has sat empty for at least 100 years.
Area residents expressed eagerness early on for the investment and infusion of young professionals in the area noted for its brick Revival Period mansions built around the early 1900s, but also for its stylistic range from Italianate to Spanish Colonial to plain vernacular and multifamily variations.
It was not until the Yins delivered to City Hall renderings of their proposed Mid-Century Modern style residence that battle lines were drawn.
On one side of the neighborhood divide stand those who want to preserve the district's stately revival style architectural feel.
On the other are those who view the area as a place for architectural excellence, including new construction that is a “product of its own time,” as some supporters have referred to the concept.
The decision whether to allow construction falls to the nine-member landmarks commission, which has jurisdiction because the lot is in the West Central-Cathedral Landmark Heritage District, which in 1981 was designated a local landmark. The locally designated district — North 38th Street from Capitol Avenue to Cuming Street — is part of the larger Gold Coast area listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Already, the Yins' vision has gone through a few redesigns, and continues to evolve in response to neighbor complaints over such things as a flat roof, frosted glass in garage doors and not enough of a welcoming front porch presence. A subcommittee of the commission is to meet today with the Yins to discuss specifics on what would make the project palatable to a majority.
“We don't expect gargoyles and columns and a tile roof,” said John Ransom, president of the North Gold Coast neighborhood association.
But, he said opponents feel strongly that any newly built house have “sympathetic elements” that reflect key design features of the district's mansions designed by leading architects of that era, including John Latenser, F.A. Henninger, John McDonald and Thomas Kimball.
Charlie Yin, who was raised in Omaha, said he and his wife are awed by the architecture and history enveloping the neighborhood, and said that appreciation was a large part of their attraction to the lot. But for their own home, they favor a modern look.
The minimalist design created by Jeff Dolezal of TACKarchitects uses limestone, brick and cedar materials to incorporate key elements important to the Yins: about 3,000 square feet of living space, a three-car garage, a patio and indoor-outdoor living area focused in the back.
Dolezal said if he were designing an add-on to an existing property, he would be true to its original style. “But here you've got a great opportunity to create a new paradigm for residential construction in an urban infill. ... It's all about quality.”
Much of the difficulty in deciding the case, Moulton said, is that there are no clear requirements for infill development in the district. Most rules have been written for existing buildings and proposed modifications or treatments to them.
Indeed, Moulton said, “mimicry” and copycat attempts are frowned upon because they can undermine architectural significance. The best guidance available, he said, comes from a couple of past cases.
In the end, Moulton said, the Planning Department's recommendation is to approve the Yins' design with a few conditions, such as a more pedestrian approach out front and a horizontal orientation on exterior materials. The process allows the property owner to appeal the commission's decision to the City Council or in district court.
While distinct from some monumental residences nearby, Moulton said there is no indication that the new house would degrade the heritage district. He called Dolezal of TACKarchitects one of this era's rising local architects with a proven track record for quality designs.
“The primary objective is to gauge the level of impact upon the 'district' and to determine whether the infill project is 'compatible,'” a city analysis states. “It will be important not to confuse 'architectural style' with 'compatibility' or to believe that new development can be contemporaneous with the original historic buildings.”
Moulton said he sees even bigger issues at hand: that of property rights and of “seizing the opportunity to invite and welcome investment into the area.” A nearly $600,000, new construction single-family house in that neighborhood, he noted, “never happens.”
While the North Gold Coast neighborhood association hasn't taken an official side due to the divergent opinions, the issue has stoked passionate emotions.
Michael Petzar moved earlier this year from another state to North 38th Street, near the lot in question. He likened his neighborhood of choice and other landmark districts to a forest preserve — “a place where people can go to step out of the moment they're in to feel like they're in a different place and time.”
Of the proposed modern house, he said: “It's discordant, disruptive to the sense of history, and just doesn't fit.”
Ransom, who lives next door to the lot, said he is troubled by several elements, including a narrow 50-foot frontage and the rectangular shape.
The driveway also was to be shared with a future house to be built later on an adjoining vacant lot to the south, which also is owned by Jerry Reimer, a midtown developer whom the Yins plan to buy their land from.
Steve Laughlin, a neighborhood architect who circulated a petition supporting the Yins, represents the other side. About 25 neighbors signed the petition.
“I think it's great that somebody wants to take an empty lot, invest in the neighborhood and bring some youthful perspective,” said Laughlin, who built his own house 25 years ago on 38th Street.
Laughlin's residence was the last newly constructed home in the district, officials said, and has been held up by Petzar as an example of what would be acceptable. But to Laughlin, the Yins' contrasting contemporary style is compatible with the overall district.
“Even though it's modern, they've done a pretty good job of blending in … gable roof, a porch that created a grand sense of entry and echoing some of the things happening up and down the street.”
Landmarks commissioner Jose Garcia is among those who saw the proposed home early on as a “concrete monolith” short on architectural embellishments. But, he said, he is increasingly convinced of its overriding value and plans to push for approval.
“I never thought I'd be in a situation, in the United States of America, where I would be a party to denying anyone the right to build a home anywhere they wanted,” he said.
Yin said that while he will participate in today's subcommittee meeting, he and his wife have started to question whether to continue the “confusing and expensive” process.
He agrees that historical districts should be protected but doesn't want his home to be a product of “everybody else's ideas.”
“We love the lot. We love the neighborhood,” Yin said. “But you want to live in a house you feel comfortable in.”