Downtown Barker building welcomes new residents, businesses

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Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2013 12:00 am

Most leave with a clay pot or shiny jewelry.

But Bridgette Ziemer went to Omaha's Summer Arts Festival and wound up with a new downtown apartment.

The time was ripe when the former East Coast city girl stopped at the booth marketing freshly renovated apartments at the historic Barker building at 15th and Farnam Streets.

Both daughters were in college. Her husband's consulting job was increasingly reliant on access to the near-downtown airport. The housing market had picked up enough that the couple had no problem selling the four-bedroom Millard-area house they bought after moving here from Philadelphia 12 years ago.

“I was like, 'OK, it's our turn,' ” Ziemer said. “I went home and put the house up for sale.”

Today, she and husband Jeff are unpacking in a two-bedroom, third-floor apartment about half the size of the suburban home that had provided a great yard and school district for growing kids.

With a new view toward the Missouri River and public library, they are among the first residents in the seven-story Barker, where construction continues on several other floors and is to be complete by November.

Six of 48 apartments have been occupied since late August, and property managers are pleased with the interest.

Pickleman's Gourmet Cafe opened four months ago in the ground-floor corner retail bay. Next month, an open-to-the-public Alegent Creighton Clinic and pharmacy is to move into the 2,200-square-foot commercial space along 15th Street. The remaining retail bay that fronts Farnam Street, formerly a longtime Buck's shoe store, is still for lease.

Before its ongoing renovation by Dicon Corp. and Shamrock Development, the 1929 Barker sat vacant for about a dozen years. It remains the namesake of one of Omaha's first families, who built two other buildings on the same site and saw them burn down before finally erecting today's concrete-and-steel neoGothic structure.

Dicon President Royce Maynard has converted other historic landmarks, so he is used to the rules and complications of trying to restore aging materials to their original state and character.

In this case, exterior windows were removed, blasted clean with baking soda and reinstalled.

Layers of drywall and glue were removed to uncover original marble walls. Terrazzo flooring and wood paneling were restored when possible. About 60 percent of wood flooring, much of it under old carpet or linoleum, was salvaged.

Fake ceilings that had been installed over the decades to save energy costs were removed to reveal original arched windows in top-floor apartments.

But there were surprises — like concrete beams that showed up in places that weren't marked on the original blueprints. Ceilings had to be dropped or raised to adjust.

“Nothing went as planned,” Maynard joked while giving a tour of the interior to The World-Herald. “What you think is going to happen doesn't always work out.”

A new building addition to create 18 apartments is being attached in the back of the building. A second stairwell also was constructed to meet building codes.

The Barker joins other defunct office spaces — including the Northern Natural Gas and Farm Credit Banks buildings — that were recently repurposed into residences. Monthly rent at the Barker ranges from $950 to about $2,000. Units vary in size from 750 square feet to 1,150 square feet.

Had the conversion project taken place prior to the housing collapse, condos might have replaced the former office space. But Maynard said bank loans for downtown condos aren't forthcoming today like they are for apartments, and he said demand for downtown apartments remains strong.

The soon-to-come clinic and pharmacy stand out, developers said, as signs that downtown Omaha is evolving into an area with enough residents to support more service-oriented outlets and nonfood retailers.

For Bridgette Ziemer, an emergency room nurse, the shift from suburbanite to downtown dweller was an easy choice.

“I like the noise — even the firetrucks,” she said. “I like to know the world goes on around me at all times.”

Her husband, whose job brought them to the Midwest, sometimes misses the backyard and grill. And while his office now will be relegated to a corner strip of the living room, he appreciates saving $60 per cab ride to the airport for his frequent business trips.

Bridgette is excited about ditching lawn work and saving the energy for outings with friends. She stops on the way home from work for groceries that might not exist in her new neighborhood.

As for daughters Carly and Erica, they like the thought of a downtown place to stay when they come home for breaks.

“There's so much development going on down here,” Bridgette said. “I think it's only going to get better.”

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