West Omaha development set to build after years of speed bumps

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Posted: Sunday, January 5, 2014 12:00 am

Nearly eight years after it was envisioned, construction is about to begin at a 54-acre office park and residential development projected to cost more than $100 million along the busy West Dodge Road corridor at 168th Street.

The West Dodge Pointe project during that time has changed names, cleared out a trailer court, waited out the Great Recession and navigated other complicated twists such as the sale of one public road and the creation of another.

So involved was the process that major companies that once eyed the now-vacant land, including ACI Worldwide and CSG International, settled elsewhere and already are up and running their new homes.

“It certainly was tricky,” said Larry Jobeun, attorney for developer White Lotus Group. “The number of challenges you had with the economy, with trying to reconfigure the street to get a full movement intersection ... But for the first time in quite some time, we're in really good shape.”

Arun Agarwal, chief executive of White Lotus, anticipates breaking ground for the first building — a 45,000-square-foot facility whose main tenant will be Deeb Realty — within a few months. Next in line is a 15-acre apartment complex with about 350 residences.

A multistory hotel, retail services, restaurants and entertainment venues also are anticipated, with those tenants yet to be secured. The area's primary use is to be up to 450,000 square feet of office space, said Agarwal, who hopes to land a corporate headquarters as anchor.

He expects tenant interest to jump once cranes and construction materials start rolling onto the land that has sat idle since the last of about 100 Regency mobile homes left in 2007.

“The timing is perfect,” said Agarwal. “The market has energized. This is Omaha's main street — they're not going to make more of Dodge Street — and we're fortunate to be a part of it.”

In all, there could be 10 to 15 buildings, two to five stories high, on the project site on the northwest corner of the West Dodge and 168th Street intersection, stretching west from 168th to 174th Street, said Trenton Magid, founder and principal of World Group, which is handling leasing services.

The Deeb building will face West Dodge. Magid said a nationally known multifamily development company wants to build as soon as possible on the development's western edge.

While White Lotus has a master layout plan, the final look will depend on wishes of tenants that could either lease space in a developer-owned building or build their own structure to suit specific needs.

One potential national tenant Magid is talking to, for example, would need nearly 15 acres alone for a sports-related, customer-interactive recreation center (not a stadium or team-focused).

“We have strong interest from office building tenants,” said Magid, who estimates the project's overall price tag to be $100 million to $125 million. He also is talking to child care providers and a variety of other users, and said buildings would be constructed as tenants are secured.

For sure, Agarwal said, the new mixed-use development will follow a walkable, main street pattern similar to Aksarben Village, where buildings are built around a plaza and pathways connect commercial with residential areas. Those strolling the area would see water features, native grasses and plant life, decorative lighting, benches and bike racks.

Sidewalks are to be colored, stained or stamped concrete, creating a visually appealing connectedness.

“Another characteristic we're amped about is the public art,” Agarwal said.

He said giant sculptures and creations from local artists and university students will dot the area, giving it an artsy feel similar to the luxury boutique Hotel Deco XV in downtown Omaha, which White Lotus developed and owns.

White Lotus was founded in 2003. Its commercial projects also include the Zin Room, Omaha's Ames Plaza, the Nebraska Advanced Radiology practice and Saddle Creek Center. The company, which provides property management, consulting and other services, also developed more than a half-million square feet of industrial space under the name Armor Storage and has a hotel in Winter Park, Colo.

The company led redevelopment of an inner-city library into the Learning Community of South Omaha, converted midtown's Park Plaza into retail space and 59 condos, and recently bought Mr. C's steakhouse for a future commercial and housing project.

At the West Dodge Pointe campus, business and residential tenants also should benefit from nearby activity and services at places like Village Pointe shopping center, which is just across West Dodge to the south. To the west of the project site is an auto plaza.

Few could be more eager about the construction start than Andy Alloway, owner of Deeb Realty, who said he has been waiting nearly three years to move there.

Alloway was insistent on a West Dodge location. He had looked at other existing spots but decided on the 168th Street site because he wanted to design the real estate company's new home from scratch, creating the right mix of collaborative and private spaces, and setting a warm tone with such elements as a hearth and patio lounge areas.

The building also is intended to meet the needs of working parents, with a children's play room separated by a glass wall from meeting rooms where mom or dad can work and still keep an eye on their child.

Deeb's move means tripling its current space to accommodate a workforce that has grown from 20 agents a dozen years ago to 300, about 50 of whom were added in the past year. (Deeb will be on the first two floors, leaving the top level to be leased to one or more other firms.)

“This building is the last linchpin to continuing our growth,” said Alloway. “We think we are in our infancy, just getting started.”

West Dodge Pointe's main east-west road will be built through the middle of the project site and will replace the current frontage road along West Dodge. Moving the road farther north — it will become a new strip of Burt Street — allows office buildings to be constructed closer to Dodge, said Agarwal.

Deprogramming an existing public right of way wasn't simple, though. The State Department of Roads and White Lotus had to sign off on a fair price for the developer to pay for the frontage road.

The agreement, just recently finalized, cleared the way for construction and requires the replacement road to be built before the frontage road closes.

One traffic flow modification closes the median just north of the West Dodge Expressway exit on 168th Street, preventing northbound motorists from taking a left onto Burt Street into the new development, said Todd Pfitzer, city engineer.

Motorists still will be able to enter West Dodge Pointe from southbound lanes on 168th Street, or by exiting the expressway from 180th Street.

Pfitzer said authorities had explored numerous options to preserve that left turn off 168th but were constrained by railroad tracks, the creek and anticipated costs.

“It's been a complicated one; kind of a perfect storm of not being able to get the distances we need to modify that access,” he said.

Complicating matters were negotiations involving multiple governments: the state, city and the sanitary improvement district created to develop West Dodge Pointe.

Early on, the closure of the Regency trailer court, which had been at the site for decades, caused consternation among some mobile home owners. At that time, the proposed commercial and residential development was called Tribedo.

But perhaps the biggest speed bump, said Jobeun, was the economic downturn that stalled many a construction project in Omaha and elsewhere.

“Trying to get financing in those years with the recession the way it was, and trying to get end users willing to develop during the recession was difficult for everyone,” Jobeun said.

Overall, Pfitzer said, the development meets city master plan and design preferences. “We think it will be a good thing.”

Agarwal said it was often tough to keep energy at high gear, especially as property taxes and maintenance costs accumulated and revenue was nil. But now he's looking forward to leveling the land around the existing frontage road and opening visibility to the site from West Dodge. Construction on the Deeb building, he said, should stir interest and activity.

“We're moving forward. I'm excited.”

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