5 teams present visions to transform lot near future Blue Barn Theatre

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Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:22 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

Today it's just an old parking lot, with a weed here and there poking through cracked pavement.

But one design agency hopes to turn the roughly 70-foot-by-100-foot area behind the future Blue Barn Theatre into something called the “Pasture,” an adaptable green space that would serve as a “fantastical playground,” a spot to grill, a musical stage.

Another designer envisions the land south of downtown with a cluster of red oaks for shaded gatherings, a promontory point from which one could spy downtown action and a corner where people could watch giant movies.

In all, five design teams have hatched their own plans for transforming the northwest quadrant of the 10th and Pacific Streets block into a unique outdoor space for the public. The five were selected from a field of 50 entries to the national Green in the City contest.

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Connie Spellman of Omaha By Design, which along with the Nebraska Arts Council coordinated the competition, said she's been amazed at the response that attracted proposals from as far away as Australia and Canada.

“We had no idea there would be that kind of interest,” she said.

Designs by each of the finalists will be featured at an open house tonight from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Kaneko, 111 Jones St.

Organizers also want the winning entry to complement the 96-seat Blue Barn, scheduled to break ground this year and open in 2015. The theater's design allows its back west wall to open onto a partly covered patio that abuts the public green space.

A condo and retail project called Boxcar 10 is scheduled to rise on the south side of the Blue Barn later this year.

“The whole block really needs to have a coordinated, integrated look and feel,” Spellman said.

Omaha philanthropist Nancy Mammel — developer of Boxcar 10 and donor of the land for both the theater and public green space — has envisioned the block as a mini arts campus and catalyst for more creative developments. Mammel provided the lead donation that will help bring the winning Green in the City proposal to life.

Contest finalists are in Omaha this week to be interviewed by a jury of landscape, art and design professionals. The winner will be announced in coming weeks and will work with a $200,000 budget. Once the top design is implemented, the space becomes the Blue Barn's to manage and maintain.

The World-Herald got a sneak peek at the finalists' proposals, which will remain on display at Kaneko through Friday. Here's a flavor of each:

David M. Nelson said his team's proposal evolved from about 30 hours of phone conversations with area residents and businesses. Because the space is tucked away and not really visible, Nelson said, the team wanted to know what would pull neighbors there.

Nearby postal workers, the team learned, don't have a cafeteria. Families said the closest park is a bit scary at nighttime. A nearby nursery said it would set up a stand to sell Christmas trees or other seasonal plants.

From this feedback came the idea for an urban park that would contain elements such as a spot for food trucks and shaded cafeteria tables; an event space conducive for retail sales or weddings; a swing set area, and a bocce court where adults could compete while kids chalk on a within-eyeshot wall.

“It's breaking the site into spaces that reflect different needs and putting the right amenities there,” Nelson said.

Tables, planters and other amenities would be movable to maintain flexibility for different uses.

The team's proposal includes an arrangement to bring the local InCommon Community Development to consult on community events.

The centerpiece of “the Pasture” is a sort of town square framed by a yellow walking path and corral-like scaffolding. Inside the square is a storage barn connected to a row of pitched timber roofs that could serve as a canopy for picnics or other activities.

A pink “urban periscope” stands in the northwest corner, peering downtown. Another corner has a clover-shaped pit area with seating.

Grasses, wildflowers and other plants adorn the exterior of the square, and an extra-wide staircase leads down to the Blue Barn, providing open-air seating for an audience watching artists performing on a back patio of the theater.

Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer said their goal was to create a flexible meeting point where different activities can happen. A temporary movie screen could be hung from the yellow scaffolding so visitors could watch a movie. Area workers could eat lunch, then burn off calories on the walking trail.

“A child might see it as a fantastical playground,” the team's proposal said. “A theatergoer might see it as a place to have an evening picnic before a performance, an artist might see it as a suitable location for a play.”

Mike Albert said his team's design capitalizes on the site's sloping topography, and also references the history of Omaha. “We want to create landscapes that are very indicative of their region,” he said.

To start, the design firm researched the city's roots and found descriptions of Omahans as dwellers on the bluff. The team created as the site's focal point a concaved wall called “the Bluff,” and oriented it 18 degrees off north to align with a downtown view. (The team actually named its proposal “18 Degrees Off North.”)

The Bluff wall divides two distinct areas. The western side is more passive, dotted with red oak trees and seating areas. A mound provides a promontory point from which people can see spectacular views.

The lower-lying eastern side contains a water feature symbolizing the Missouri River. Typically, the water will be a reflective plane. Turn on pop jets, though, and it becomes a splash area. Turn off the water and the spot transforms into a dance floor or small stage.

A multiuse lawn eventually drops into “grand steps” leading to the Blue Barn.

The “Green Block” comprises two major features: a pair of gallery lawns for outdoor concerts or picnics; and a multi-use crushed-gravel plaza with movable seating.

Surrounding them are plants and trees that also wrap around the Blue Barn and liven up the sidewalk with seasonal displays of color. Grass and a drainage course are strategically placed to absorb stormwater runoff.

Susannah Drake said one of her team's goals was to enhance the management of urban stormwater by adding materials such as pavers and thirsty plant life. About 70 percent of the surface would be permeable, she said.

The team set out also to create a visible connection with other structures on the block, Drake said. For example, orange bridgelike structures made of Corten steel — material also used in the Blue Barn facade — mark entryways from 11th Street and Pacific Street. “It's a way of creating a ceremonial threshold,” she said.

The gravel plaza, or pit, is footsteps from the Blue Barn's back door and could extend the theater's seating capacity.

The whimsical pitched look of the Blue Barn's roof would carry over into its broader back yard under this proposal.

El Dorado would “create a roof corollary on the ground” in part by building borders and banisters modeled after the roof's gabled, zigzag pattern. A wall of steel along Pacific Street would take the form of connected triangles.

The grassy area that spans outward from the theater toward 11th Street also would contain subtle pitches, enough to be visually appealing but practical for play or recreation, said spokesman David Dowell.

“Roof, Ground, Water” is the proposal's name. “Those are the essential components we are trying to link together,” Dowell said.

Water would flow from the theater roof into cisterns and could be used to feed plants or hose off sidewalks. Rain, he said, also would be channeled in creative ways to be “acoustically and aesthetically engaging.” Though visually connected to the theater, the outdoor space has been designed to be “purposefully ambiguous.” Dowell said the goal was to build a site conducive to many uses, including an impromptu snowball fight or a nap on a summer day.

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