Brad Iwen saw potential in the little red commercial building no one else seemed to want on a rather dilapidated block of midtown Omaha.
“You definitely needed to squint to see the potential,” said the owner of Iwen Exposures.
But Iwen, who at the time was about to make a move back to Omaha, said he knew that 3925 Farnam St. could be the “perfect space” for his photography shop. Since that time five years ago, he and his wife, Joey, have transformed the property and galvanized a neighborhood group to push an even bigger mission — returning old glory to the surrounding business district known decades ago as a thriving port of commerce, entertainment and residences.
Now, that vision has the support of developers helping to transform the 40th and Farnam Streets area.
JMJ Partners has started modernizing a cluster of four commercial bays across the street from Iwen's photo shop into space for shops, eateries and upper-level apartments. The so-called Blackstone Place redevelopment project is estimated to cost $1 million and is to be ready for renters this summer, said representative Jay Lund of the Lund Co.
A separate effort by Omaha natives Ryan Miller and Andy Willey focuses on a structure at 3921 Farnam St. that was built in 1910 and is next to Iwen's photography business on the south side of Farnam. The Miller-Willey team, called Omaha Brewery, bought the condemned property with an eye toward creating a microbrewery and “cozy pub” that features craft beer and light fare like salads and panini.
Miller and Willey also own a row of four occupied homes to the east of the future pub. They've started to make updates to the residences and also put a new roof on the commercial site. Further construction should resume this spring, Miller said.
Both groups said they were drawn by the area's historical charm and location, which is not far from downtown and between two major employers, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Mutual of Omaha.
“We're not inventing anything here,” said Lund. “It was once a great district and it will be a great district again.”
Said Miller, who also is planning breweries in north downtown and in the historic Benson business district: “We wanted to have that more urban feel for our businesses, as opposed to having them in a strip mall.”
Iwen, leader of the recently created Blackstone Business Improvement Board, said there's been much momentum along the Farnam Street corridor from 36th to 40th Streets since he first scoped out the neighborhood before returning to his hometown to build a business.
Back then, Iwen's future property had been on the market so long, he said, that no one was effectively marketing it anymore. The reality before him was a stretch of too many rundown commercial bays and apartments.
“Through the '80s and '90s, it kind of fell to the wayside,” Iwen said.
He did, however, find a tightknit group of property owners who touted the area as full of history and “potential.”
Longtime businesses to the east on Farnam Street, including McFoster's Natural Kind Cafe and Brothers Lounge, provided a core support for a renewal effort, he said, as did surrounding neighborhoods like Joslyn and Gold Coast. The historic Blackstone office building at 36th and Farnam Streets was the inspiration for the district's name.
Iwen and others, including City Councilman Chris Jerram, began meeting regularly to plot out ways to reinvigorate the Blackstone District, which in the early 1900s was known as the West Farnam District.
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From Farnam to Hamilton, 40th Street in the 1940s had shopping districts at every major intersection, three churches and a community playhouse. Anchoring the northwest corner of 40th and Farnam Streets was the Admiral Theater.
Businesses around that intersection today include a popular tattoo shop, a communications and information design firm, restaurants and a day care. The Blackstone business group is working to convert a section of Farnam Street back to two-way traffic, thinking that will boost the bustle.
Meanwhile, ongoing construction at the Blackstone Place is piquing interest.
“When you drive down that strip now it just looks so radically different, almost overnight,” said Iwen.
Together, the Blackstone Place commercial properties — 3928, 3926, 3924 and 3922 Farnam St. — span 9,500 square feet. An additional 5,300 square feet above the corner building is to become seven one-bedroom apartments fit for young professionals and medical students, Lund said.
When the development team first looked at the strip, it found more than 20 code violations that made most of it uninhabitable, according to a plan submitted to the city. With the exception of Sullivan's Bar at 3926 Farnam St., the properties essentially had been empty for five years.
In another sign of growing investment, the owner of Sullivan's Bar decided to purchase the corner building across the street at 3929 Farnam. Dan Houlihan said he had been renting the previous 12 years, saw the neighborhood turning around and “wanted a piece of the pie.”
“It just made sense,” he said. “The area is upcoming. It's like somebody flipped a switch.”
He'll move Sullivan's into its new home no later than early fall, and has started remodeling the interior and exterior.
Working with JMJ on the Blackstone Place are Alley Poyner Machietto Architecture, Streamline Construction and Dundee Bank. While electrical, plumbing and other essentials will be new, exposed brick walls, high ceilings and mosaic tile flooring will be preserved to resemble original homes of Cavalieri the shoemaker, Piscale the barber, Piggly Wiggly the grocer and the West Farnam Hardware store.
One storefront is committed to a yet-to-be-announced merchant that fits the target tenant for that strip: a local and independent business, said Lund.
The corner bay, most recently occupied by Reading Grounds and the largest with about 3,500 square feet, will accommodate a full-service restaurant. With 70 off-street parking stalls connected to the project, JMJ expects all commercial spots to be leased by the end of the year.
The project seeks about $200,000 in tax increment financing from the city, said Lund, adding that a portion will go to the two-way-street effort.
Citing a spring 2012 survey, JMJ said apartment occupancy in the 40th and Farnam Streets area was at 87 percent, so the developer expects no difficulty leasing the one-bedroom units.
“This area is emerging as a true 24/7 area in Omaha,” said the TIF proposal. “Residents in the area work, live and play within the business district, and the area does not have as many commuters for work or entertainment as other neighborhoods in Omaha experience.”
Miller said he and Willey, childhood friends who are planning to move back to Omaha from the Washington, D.C., area, bought the future pub site about three years ago as part of a larger plan to open a string of breweries in historically relevant areas of the city. One is planned for 1206 Izard St., in an old mule barn north of the downtown baseball stadium that was built in the 1880s.
Another, at 6059 Maple St. in Benson, is to open soon. Miller said construction then will turn to the Farnam Street pub.
At the time the Miller team started buying buildings in the older areas, it didn't have a lot of capital. So the team went where others were not looking. Many thought they were crazy, Miller said.
Iwen expects the Blackstone District to stay on a roll with an ongoing fundraising effort to pay for the two-way-street conversion and other improvements. He said he never regretted taking the chance on the little red building.
“It always felt like a neighborhood where something awesome was going to happen,” he said.
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