Renovated St. Joseph Hospital wing provides more than apartments for veterans

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Posted: Monday, October 28, 2013 12:00 am

A 110,000-square-foot building — that for a decade stood essentially empty and deteriorating on a storied site south of downtown Omaha — is now bustling around-the-clock with veteran apartment dwellers, federal employees and college life.

The $16 million transformation of a former wing of the old St. Joseph Hospital is uncommon in the collection of private and public partners that came together to revive the brick structure anchored by the Victory Apartments.

Other parts of the six-story structure at Eighth and Dorcas Streets are leased to the Department of Veterans Affairs for clinical and support services, and to Grace University for classrooms and staff.

While officials view the project as a jewel for area vets, they said it also helps revitalize the aging residential neighborhood around it — and continues a southward buildup of the corridor that connects the Old Market and world-class Henry Doorly Zoo.

“It's just energized this area,” said Tom McLeay of America First Real Estate Group, which is the project's developer and owner.

Since the Victory building's formal opening last month, service and neighborhood groups have delivered welcome wreaths and gift baskets for new veteran tenants who range from age 22 to 82.

One community group has promised to deliver smoked turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Others continue to call, said property manager Tom York, with requests about what they can do for the residents who he said have become a symbol of American pride and loyalty to country.

“We're constantly getting that,” York said. “These are the little things that help them get back on their feet.”

The rehabilitation of the apartment building — originally erected around 1950 as St. Joseph Hospital's Our Lady of Victory Wing — was a project three years in the making, McLeay said.

Previously owned by Grace University, the building is on a broader campus that started in 1870 with the original St. Joseph Hospital. The hospital has been replaced by the privately run St. Joseph Villa, which is surrounded by an assisted-living facility and other building space that Grace University leases to human service organizations.

A huge arch from the old hospital stands at the entrance to the rehabbed apartment building.

In cooperation with the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System and Grace University, America First Real Estate gutted the interior of the apartment building, replacing electrical and mechanical systems and outfitting the 90 residential units expected to be full within two months.

Grace University now leases 11,000 square feet of the building's ground level for its psychology department. The VA rents 10,000 square feet on the second floor for 50 employees and offices.

Upper floors contain the vet housing made affordable through rent vouchers provided by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Douglas County Housing Authority.

Veterans also have a community room and a 7,000-square-foot refurbished gym with fitness equipment and movie screen.

Finishing a month ahead of schedule and with 10 more apartments than planned, Nebraska's HUD director Earl Redrick said: “Victory Apartments represent a phenomenal example of collaborative partnerships within the Omaha community.”

Also contributing to the financing package were the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, which provided housing tax credits, U.S. Bank and the City of Omaha.

York, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, said he expects on-site support services and the group setting to provide many residents the boost they need.

Already he has seen connections being made. The apartment floor plans are named after 14 different military bases, and that has given rise to interesting conversations about veterans' backgrounds.

“It's an icebreaker for the vets,” York said, “and helps build that camaraderie.”

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