Old phone company site in downtown Omaha is becoming modern apartments

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Posted: Monday, July 15, 2013 12:00 am

With 290 apartments spanning 12 floors, “The Wire” in downtown Omaha is poised to become NuStyle Development's largest conversion project yet.

That's no small milestone considering the Woodbine, Iowa-based company is celebrating 25 years in business and is on its 40th conversion of a historic structure.

“This is what we love to do — rehab these historic buildings,” said Mary Heistand, who owns NuStyle with her husband, Todd.

Converting the 380,000-square-foot structure at 100 S. 19th St. into one- and two-bedroom units also means returning to use a downtown icon that has sat vacant for nearly two decades.

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which is working on the design, called the existing shell “a hulking derelict of office space” and “one of the last large vacant office buildings left in downtown Omaha.”

Significant for its economic impact during its era, the former Northwestern Bell regional headquarters represented the telephone company's rapid expansion in the telecommunications industry and also helped usher in a time of corporate construction downtown.

A sampling of NuStyle projects

 » The Slate, 119 N. 19th St., 117 units, $13 million, nearing completion.

 » Livestock Exchange Building, 4920 S. 30th St., 102 units, 40,000 square feet commercial; nearly $16 million; 2004.

 » The Highline, 2223 Dodge St., 194 units, 2,500 square feet commercial, about $26 million; completed earlier this year.

 » The Bank, 206 S. 19th St., 106 units, 13,000 square feet commercial, $17 million, 2011.

 » TipTop, 1524 Cuming St., 105 units, 56,439 square feet commercial, nearly $23 million, 2005.

 » Castle on the Hill, Sioux City, Iowa, 75 units, 41,000 square feet commercial, $9 million; 2003.

 » Old Federal Place Apartments, Lincoln, 42 units, 30,000 square feet commercial, nearly $7 million, 2004.

 » Robbins School Apartments, 4352 S. 39th Ave., 21 affordable units, $2 million, 1998.

 » Securities Building Apartments, 305 S. 16th St., 35 units; 7,400 square feet commercial; $3 million; 1996.

 » Riverview Meadows, Omaha, 19 new single-family homes; $2.5 million, 1997-99.

At the time the first brick was laid in the 1950s, the regional headquarters was heralded as downtown's first new office project in 25 years. Soon after construction started, Northern Natural Gas started an addition to its building; Union Pacific's five-story addition also began. And by 1969, Woodmen Tower opened.

The Heistands recently purchased the former Bell structure from a developer whose plans to refurbish it into upscale apartments and commercial space never materialized. NuStyle began work about a week ago on its $41 million project, and completion is expected in 2015.

The project comes as NuStyle finishes the 117-unit Slate complex just across Dodge Street at 1815 Capitol Ave. That $13 million conversion of the former Black Hills Energy Building followed conversion of NuStyle's just-opened Highline, a 194-unit complex a few blocks to the west at the former Northern Natural Gas headquarters at 2223 Dodge St.

Even with those — and several other apartment complexes in the works downtown — Todd Heistand believes there is further demand for apartment living in the city's core.

He noted that marketing for the Slate began in May and 70 of 117 units are leased.

“We don't open until August there so I would say it is a pretty good market.”

Rent for one of the Wire's 200 one-bedroom apartments, Heistand said, will run about $850.

NuStyle, he said, plans to ask the City of Omaha for about $6.4 million in tax-increment financing, or the use of projected future gains in taxes to make current improvements. Federal historic tax credits also would help defray expenses.

Named for its telephone and communication roots, the Wire is to feature something that Heistand said is a first for NuStyle: a rooftop, full-size swimming pool with overhead garage doors that will open in warm months and close in the cold season.

The building also will include an atrium stretching upward from the second floor, indoor parking, a racquetball court, fitness center, rooftop decks and community rooms.

A commercial retail area is likely for the ground level.

Interior decor, said Mary Heistand, will reflect the Baby Bell history. (As a Baby Bell operating under AT&T, Northwestern Bell served a five-state area.)

Art, for instance, might include a woman on a switchboard. “We'll probably set old phones around in different areas of the building,” she said.

Because of its 2009 placement on the National Register of Historic Places, no significant change will occur on the exterior, Heistand said, “except that it will be cleaned up and shiny.”

The boxy brick building was built in two phases; the first began in 1954 and was completed in 1957, and the second began in 1962 and was completed in 1964, according to the historic nomination.

Christina Jansen of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, who wrote the nomination, said the historic status is more about substance than style.

Leo A Daly's nonflashy design, according to the nomination, was a “stylized modern aesthetic,” a functional fit for the firm's philosophy of providing universal service at a low cost.

At the time, Omaha's commercial and housing construction was pushing into the suburbs, including the Western Electric plant, an AT&T subsidiary, that opened in Millard in 1958. The Northwestern Bell regional headquarters became a symbol of the rising prominence of the company and a commitment to Omaha's downtown during the 1950s and 1960s.

Said the nomination: “Development of the 'block that talk built' provided a tangible new focus for Omaha's civic core.”

By the time NuStyle took over ownership, the previous owner had completed extensive interior demolition and asbestos removal. So, said site superintendent Bob Heffernan, the company had a head start on converting it into the 290 residences.

The effort marks NuStyle's 40th conversion or rehabilitation of a Nebraska or Iowa building on the National Register of Historic Places, said Heistand. Others include the TipTop, Drake Court, Livestock Exchange Building and Old Market Lofts.

“This will be the biggest one we've done — the largest cost and most units.”

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