Royce Maynard has a question. It’s a question he wants to ask every city leader supporting the construction of a new juvenile justice center in downtown Omaha.

It’s a question he thinks Omahans should stop and think about as we imagine what our downtown will look like in the next five years, next decade, next generation.

His question: Would you live next door to a juvenile detention center?

“I have expressed this to the people in the county who will listen,” says Maynard, president of Dicon Corp., which is trying to reinvigorate the southwest corner of downtown near where the juvenile justice center may be built. “And I think that there’s a broader view they need to step back, look at and appreciate.”

[READ MORE: A new downtown retail and residential district was forming, but now its future is up in the air]

County Board members supporting the 10-story project that would tentatively rise at 18th and Harney Streets like the location next door to the courthouse. They argue it will conveniently group a number of offices, a juvenile court and a youth detention center.

But a downtown developer, an architect and a former city planner all expressed worry about that same location this week.

They are worried that another government building — this one housing preteen and teenage offenders — pushes Omaha’s downtown away from the goal of becoming a vibrant, walkable, shoppable, livable area.

They are worried that Omaha may be delivering itself another self-inflicted wound to the gut.

“In downtown Omaha, you can trace a series of missteps and poor decisions,” says Geoff DeOld, an influential architect with projects in the Flatiron district. “I think that at this point we would be making better decisions about what we are doing downtown.”

In the past, we built giant hulking city and state office buildings downtown, offices with blank facades that closed airtight at 5 p.m. as their employees jumped in their cars and sped from downtown.

In the 1970s, we built a jail downtown, filling two Leavenworth Street blocks years ago occupied by offices, a hotel and a bustling bus station with a foreboding 1,500-bed prison ringed by razor wire.

At the time, no one thought much about it because “there was nothing around it,” says Marty Shukert, former city planning director. He laughs. “It seemed like an entirely logical place to put a prison. Who is going to object? And, I mean, no one did.”

But then, Shukert says, things started to change. A downtown housing market was born in the 1980s. All over the country, cities began to reimagine their dead downtowns as places where people could live, work and dine.

This transformation isn’t just important for downtown enthusiasts. It’s important for tourism. For attracting new residents and new highly skilled employees. It’s important for the future of the city itself.

And, in fits and starts, downtown Omaha is transforming, particularly the Old Market and now north downtown. But make no mistake, experts say: We are hindered by those previous decisions. The faceless office buildings with no ground-floor retail. The blocking of 16th Street. The parking garages. The current county jail.

If built, the juvenile justice center will sit just two blocks west of the Orpheum Theater and a cluster of nearby new apartments, bars, restaurants and a boutique hotel.

The plan also could close 18th Street, which, Maynard says, “feels like cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

It all raises the question: Are we about to make another downtown mistake?

“It seems to me that, if you are looking at this from a strategic planning perspective ... that’s a site that wants to be used for something else,” Shukert says.

P.J. Morgan, a former Omaha mayor and current Douglas County Board member generally supportive of the project, points out there’s a giant difference between the Douglas County Correctional Center and the proposed juvenile justice center.

He says the board will build something that will attract Omahans, not repel them.

On balance, a downtown location is a good idea, Morgan thinks. It’s convenient for judges, lawyers and families. And tentatively it would occupy a block that Morgan sees as unloved and unused. Right now, that block houses offices for the Omaha Housing Authority, another government building and — most controversially — a near-century-old building that the county is trying to take by eminent domain. Owner Bob Perrin says he wants to restore the building. He’s fighting the county in court.

[READ MORE: Building owner implores Douglas County not to tear down ‘absolute gem’ for juvenile justice center]

To Morgan, anything the county will build is far desirable to the present.

“I think I would be more concerned about a vacant building that’s been vacant for 10 years” he says, alluding to Perrin’s building. (Morgan’s real estate firm was involved in the sale of some of the buildings proposed for the justice center site; he recused himself from related votes and said his firm didn’t make money.)

If construction does eventually move forward, the County Board understands the need to place ground-floor retail in the building and make it a vibrant part of the neighborhood, he says. It will look like an office tower, he says, not a prison.

But to the opponents I spoke to, it isn’t about the past or the present. It’s about the future. What might eventually rise at 18th and Harney if we don’t put the juvenile justice center there? A westward extension of the Old Market? New high-end apartments or condos?

Which is why, before we got off the phone, I had to ask Morgan the question. It’s a question that does seem fair as we consider building a juvenile justice center near the heart of downtown Omaha.

Would you live right next to this thing?

P.J. Morgan pauses.

“I can’t say that I wouldn’t,” he says.

He pauses again.

“But I understand ... I think we can be asked that question.”

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