Nearly a half-century ago, the city planning director pencil-sketched a reimagined downtown Omaha — and a dream for riverfront development.

Around the same time, in 1969, Omaha elected an affable and sometimes comical mayor who pushed for a serious “return to the river.”

A result of the vision by Planning Director Alden Aust and Mayor Gene Leahy was a sunken park with walking paths and a lagoon. It was christened in the 1970s as the Central Park Mall, and in 1992 was renamed the Leahy Mall.

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A sketch of a re-imagined downtown Omaha 50 years ago by Planning Director Alden Aust.

As city hall reporter from 1973 to 1979, I wrote about a lot of the downtown-riverfront plans and development.

For those who weren’t around then, it may be hard to picture what was there previously — blocks of late-19th century, two- and three-story structures well past their prime. Not very attractive.

Over the decades I’ve watched Omaha change for the better, and not just from the view of reporter and columnist. It’s personal, too — I work and live near the mall, and the opening page of my “Uniquely Omaha” book features a beautiful photo of the Leahy Mall and lagoon.

When I first read of the plan to fill in the sunken park, I have to admit — I got a sinking feeling.

Because now civic and business leaders want to tear the mall up and largely start over, raising most of it to street level. Some people, though, like it as it is — a contemplative area away from “all the noise and the hurry,” to borrow a phrase from Petula Clark’s song “Downtown.”

The original sketch from long ago didn’t appear to show the mall as sunken, but that was how local and nationally known landscape architects eventually designed it.

Gregory Peterson, an Omaha consultant and Aust protégé who worked in the City Planning Department from 1969 to 2003, said he doesn’t like the new design but is resigned to it.

“To me, it’s really sad,” he said. “The mall was designed to really separate the pedestrian from the street, from the urban edge. It’s a quiet place below street level.”

The rationale behind raising the mall is to make it more accessible to people.

Leaders of the new plan credit the mall with spawning development downtown and along the riverfront but say it’s time for a new approach.

“The ‘return to the river’ achieved its goals,” Mayor Jean Stothert declared at a Tuesday public meeting with 250 residents at Gallup’s corporate headquarters on the riverfront.

The mall, she said, was a catalyst for the construction of nearly 20 downtown buildings and the renovation of 24 others. It also helped spur other improvements, she said, such as the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

But just as business and civic leaders built a new downtown starting in the 1970s, the mayor said, it’s time again to build a new future.

“The goal is the same,” she said. “To reconnect to the river and spur development.”

The new plan, emanating from leaders in business and philanthropy, is big and expensive — $260 million to $290 million, mostly to be paid through donations, with $50 million in lease-purchase bonds backed by the city.

It would renovate the Leahy Mall (1970s), the Heartland of America Park (1990) and the Lewis & Clark Landing (2003) — public parks built at different times but now being better connected as part of a spectacular do-over.

Plans for the Council Bluffs side of the river are still to be announced.

As a World-Herald writer for 48 years, it’s been fascinating to watch the decades of change. In 1970, Omaha’s downtown was declining, with theaters and department stores moving out.

The riverfront was gritty and not very pretty — a railroad repair yard, a metal recycling area and a polluting lead-smelting plant.

They are all gone, and now we have the sleek CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade Park and the Holland Performing Arts Center. Also, along hilltops near the river a couple of miles south of downtown, Lauritzen Gardens and the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.

The City of Omaha, tapping federal block grants, created the mall using eminent domain to buy up more than 100 properties in the 1970s. A memorable story (it made the New York Times) came when the mayor’s father sued city hall.

Yes, Hymie Zorinsky, head of H.Z. Vending and Sales and father of Mayor Edward Zorinsky (later a U.S. senator), didn’t like the amount the city had offered for several parcels he had owned in that area for decades.

“I’ll tell you,” the elder Zorinsky said, “this thing is driving me nuts.”

Using federal and local taxpayer money, the city acquired and razed blocks of buildings east of 14th Street between Douglas and Farnam Streets.

The final design for the mall — not a shopping mall, but an open-air linear park like the much larger National Mall in Washington — resulted in sloped, grassy areas leading down to the lagoon, as well as an attractive wood-plank footbridge.

Backers of the new plan acknowledge the mall’s beauty, including the thousands of lights that fill its trees from Thanksgiving into January for the Holiday Lights Festival.

But few people use the mall, backers say, because 30 percent is water and the slopes aren’t conducive to activities.

The slides near 11th Street will remain under the plans, and the mall will still include water. But the object is to raise the mall to make it more inviting.

The overall plan for the three parks includes much more. The unattractive concrete pad at Lewis & Clark Landing, which caps contaminated soil from the smelting plant, will be covered with dirt and planted in grass and trees.

The lake at Heartland Park will be reduced in size to make room for a sand beach and other features. The fountain shooting water 320 feet high will remain.

Yes, downtown Omaha has changed in a half-century, as has much of the rest of the metropolitan area. By the middle of the next decade, its population is poised to reach 1 million.

Two decades ago, voters opted in by approving a bond issue of nearly $200 million for what became the CenturyLink Center. Philanthropists have played a major role in that project and others — including the new Riverfront Revitalization Project, led by business and civic leaders Ken Stinson and Mogens Bay.

Mayor Stothert said Omaha is the envy of many other cities.

“I go to meetings with mayors across the country all the time,” she told me in an interview, “and they cannot believe the generosity of the philanthropic community here.”

In a sense, the return-to-the-river vision started a half-century ago on a sheet of blank paper with a planner’s hand-drawn sketch. Now, in a high-tech age with computers, animated videos and intricate plans, 21st-century dreamers have sketched out a new vision.

Among the residents attending the public meeting Tuesday were two sons of the popular mayor for whom the Leahy Mall is named and who died in 2000.

How might their dad react if he were alive today?

“Oh, he’d be excited as hell,” said Brian Leahy. “And he’d mention Alden Aust.”

“We want to make sure he isn’t forgotten,” said Terry Leahy. “Because all of this was his dream.”

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michael.kelly@owh.com, 402-444-1132

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