Buildings are more than bricks and mortar. Through their years of existence, serving a variety of purposes and welcoming a variety of people, they become storytellers.
You just have to listen to hear and learn from them. At least, that’s what Chris Erickson of City Ventures real estate development believes, especially about the many historic buildings in Omaha.
“These buildings hold tremendous value. That’s why it’s so important to make sure they remain useful and continue to have a purpose,” said Erickson, who worked on many historic rehab projects with Shamrock Development before starting City Ventures more than a year ago. He is currently working on the new apartment building and warehouse renovation at Ninth Avenue and Jones Street.
“They tell the story of the city, how it grew over 100-plus years, and they help create new stories for those who live there and will live there. But without the tax credits, we could never afford to do it, and then our heritage and history would be lost or sit vacant.”
Vacant and unused is the state that many of the landmark buildings were in before they were rescued, rehabbed and repurposed. Most are downtown, left behind as businesses and people moved further and further west during the past century.
But the rejuvenation of downtown and midtown in the past few decades, starting with the life breathed into the Old Market, brought business and people back to the river.
As more companies returned downtown and restaurants and entertainment options sprang up, the real estate market flourished. But it quickly became clear that options and opportunities were scarce or limited.
All those empty buildings — some dating back to frontier days and others connected to Omaha’s turn-of-the-century role as a distribution and manufacturing hub — provided the housing opportunities needed by the city’s growing downtown population.
With historic rehab projects, however, come regulations and requirements that must be met to get the previously mentioned tax credits, creating challenges to preserving the historic integrity of a structure while adapting it to comply with current building codes and zoning laws.
“It’s all about maintaining what was while still trying to create what is needed for the new purpose of the building,” said Katrina Stoffel, an interior designer with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects, who has been involved with many historic rehabs in Omaha, most recently the conversion of the former Omaha Federal Building at 15th and Dodge Streets into the new Marriott Resident Inn Omaha.
Stoffel said that to obtain tax credits, certain building features such as facades or certain interior characteristics must be maintained.
“If we take down a wall for some reason, we have to put it back up to keep the historic integrity. These buildings were built to last, and to build new with the same types of materials used 100 years ago would be financially impossible, so it’s important to keep them intact. Plus, they are part of our heritage, and it’s important to keep them up and productively used. It’s a process, but if you believe in maintaining the history, it’s all worth it.”
NuStyle Development Corporation of Omaha has been a major player in the rehabbing of many historic buildings in downtown and midtown during the past couple of decades, among them the Old Market Lofts Phases I, II and III, the Bull Durham Building and Ford Warehouse Apartments, and the repurposing of the Highline building at 22nd and Dodge Streets.
Now high-rise apartments, the Highline was constructed in three phases between 1950 and 1957, with the iconic tower finished in 1957. Originally an office building for Northern Natural Gas, it later served as office space for First National Bank of Omaha before sitting vacant for more than a decade.
NuStyle President and founder Todd Heistand said he looked at the building several years ago but only recently purchased it for the historic conversion.
Even with the Midtown Crossing development providing much-needed housing in midtown Omaha, Heistand knew there was still demand eight blocks closer to downtown. The Highline provided the space and opportunity for that.
“It’s such a great building, a landmark in the area, that it needed to find new life, and now it provides housing in a part of the city that’s not quite downtown but not midtown and fills a market niche,” said Heistand, whose current projects also include recapitalizations — changing the original use of a building for something new or different — of the Wire, the former Northwestern Bell building at 19th and Dodge Streets, and the Slate, the former headquarters for Black Hills Energy near 19th Street and Capitol Avenue, among others.
“We had some challenges with the Highline — including having to keep the original aluminum windows, which aren’t very energy efficient, as well as keeping original hallways and the lobby in order to keep the historic integrity and get the tax credits. People are definitely looking to rent more after the housing downturn a few years ago, so we’re providing those opportunities. But it’s a small sacrifice to return this building to use again. It had been too long.”
Midtown Crossing, the development started and owned by Mutual of Omaha, has transformed the Turner Park area around 30th and Farnam Streets into a destination location and is creating new history of its own.
Offering 500 condos and apartments — with high-end finishes and great city views — Midtown Crossing also provides dining, entertainment and retail options within walking distance, all in a couple of city blocks.
“Midtown Crossing is a $365 million project that has completely transformed a once-blighted area of the city into a destination location where people can eat, shop and live,” said Molly Skold, vice president of marketing and communications for East Campus Realty, which manages the development. “Add in the improvements made to Turner Park, which welcomes upwards of 120,000 people each year for concerts, etc., and we truly have a place where people want to live.”
How much has Midtown Crossing impacted the neighborhood and community as a whole? According to a study conducted by Goss & Associates, the development has not only acted as a catalyst for overall real estate values for property in close proximity to the development by more than 12 percent between 2006 and 2011, but it also has created and supported hundreds of jobs, increased city tax coffers significantly and given hope to a community looking for financial assistance and a reason to hope.
“Midtown Crossing’s future operations will not only boost the overall Omaha economy via direct and indirect spending, but the development will serve to further stimulate tourism and purchases by visitors from outside Omaha,” Skold said. “Additionally, by enhancing the quality of life for residents of the city, Midtown Crossing is expected to contribute to the area’s retention and recruitment of well-educated and highly productive workers.”