In a basement corner of the old Burlington Building downtown rests a toolbox. Inside that toolbox sits a small machine. Inside that machine is very important information, literally make-or-break information.
The machine’s measures of ground pulses will be crucial to maintaining the integrity of this 140-year-old structure as the park landscape around it gets remade. Again.
The machine, about the size of an old Big Mac container, is a vibration monitor. Its job is to collect the rumblings of a convoy of heavy equipment headed east as part of a $290 million “tri-park” project that includes the reshaping of Gene Leahy Mall.
The closer the big trucks get and the harder the jackhammers hammer, the greater the worry about anything happening to the Burlington office building at 1004 Farnam St., one of two still-standing remnants of Omaha’s architectural past that stand in the path of change.
The other is the Greenhouse, a 112-year-old, eight-story brick warehouse-turned-apartments at 900-912 Farnam St. It, too, has a vibration monitor in its basement.
“We’re doing what we can, you know, we’re trying to be as careful as we can,” said Chris Koenig, senior project manager of HDR Inc., one of the firms helping to reshape the massive six-block Gene Leahy Mall. “These two buildings, they’re just integral to this park. We can’t really have any damage.”
Still fresh in Omaha’s memory is Frankie Pane’s, the two-story home and banquet facility on 12th and Douglas Streets that was fatally damaged during an implosion-gone-wrong involving surrounding buildings during construction of the Holland Performing Arts Center in 2002.
The mall project does not involve building demolitions. And the infill work — the park is being raised to street level — is significantly different. Still, Koenig shook his head at the memory of Pane’s losses and said HDR is working very closely with managers at both buildings in closest proximity to the construction work to ensure nothing goes awry.
He wants to make sure the public knows it will be noisy and messy, as construction projects are. Studies show that there’s a public perception that nearby construction projects will cause harm when strain levels can be smaller than normal ones caused by changes in temperature or humidity.
That perception is understandable given the tools: tandem dump trucks, semitrailer trucks, 3-ton excavators, a 6,000-foot-per-pound jackhammer mounted on a backhoe, bulldozers, front-end loaders and compactors.
Earthwork has started in front of the Burlington Building with lagoon wall demolition scheduled in the next month. Demolition work near the Greenhouse building is scheduled to begin this fall and continue through winter, Koenig said.
HDR is checking the vibration monitors daily, by staff who download the data and review it and by an on-site structural engineer.
Koenig, along with representatives of the Burlington Building and the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which is managing the Riverfront Revitalization Project, sat down with me to explain what they’re doing and how.
The work, which started in March and is expected to continue for two more years, will be disruptive. Sidewalks are going to be taken out, the lagoon is being drained and filled in and then comes landscaping, walkways and amenities.
Koenig and Katie Bassett, MECA’s vice president of parks, stressed the need for open communication and desire to be “good neighbors” to one another.
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The Burlington and Greenhouse buildings are survivors. They survived the 1970s-era urban renewal effort aimed at injecting an emptying Omaha downtown with beauty, energy and hoped-for economic drivers. That plan called for removing old buildings that stood along Farnam and Douglas Streets roughly between 14th and Eighth Streets.
The Burlington Building, constructed in 1879 and renovated by noted architect Thomas Kimball in 1899, was the home of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co. until the railroad pulled out in 1966.
It was then used as storage for tires. In 1974, as downtown Omaha was turning into a ghost town, the City of Omaha moved to tear it down, lining up a demolition contract. Then, after the National Register designation, the city changed its mind and bought the building, pledging to save it.
Planners then envisioned restoring the Burlington and Greenhouse buildings.
The Burlington had a four-story atrium lit by a giant glass sunroof on top. It had stylish ironwork along each floor’s walkways. It held the promise of being an anchor for what was then called Central Park Mall.
Planners could see a basement restaurant with a patio facing the lagoon with a cafe and shops on upper floors.
The Greenhouse building was part of a sister-brother pair of brick warehouses originally called the Nash Block and later referred to as McKesson-Robbins for the drug company that once occupied it. One of the warehouses was demolished, but the other was left intact. Planners talked about an indoor ice rink and children’s museum.
But interest rates in the 1970s were in the double digits and developers came and went. The building itself was in pretty dire shape. The roof leaked. There were at least two dozen broken windows. A World-Herald reporter in 1979 wrote about how easy it was to get inside, “by lifting up a loose plank placed over a door.” Kids were using the Burlington as an indoor bike track.
Central Park Mall was completed in 1980. Four years later, a Wichita developer bought the property and renovated the Burlington for $3.1 million. Businessman Michael Yanney, a longtime tenant, wound up buying the building through one of his companies.
The Nash Block was designed by Kimball in 1907 and was the last remnant of Jobbers Canyon, the brick warehouse district that was torn down to make way for the ConAgra headquarters.
That building was named an Omaha landmark in 1978 and got listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. In 1989 it was renovated into apartments and renamed the Greenhouse.
Both then and now, the mall construction projects shared the aim of reinventing downtown Omaha. The 1970s park space was created as an escape from the busy world; thus it was situated below street level. The remake will elevate the park, aiming to create a giant public green space.
Then and now, the Burlington and Greenhouse buildings are seen as “jewels,” the term used by Koenig, the HDR project manager.
Marty Shukert, former Omaha planning director and now a principal at RDG Planning and Design, said he hasn’t felt any trembling in the Greenhouse, where his business sits. (RDG is moving to 11th and Howard streets).
He said the mall construction poses “no real threat,” though it was “good they’re being careful.”
“They should be fine,” he said.
Koenig said HDR is drawing on its institutional knowledge and past experience working with downtown projects involving sewer separation, flood prevention and construction. He credited the 1970s planners for excavating around the Burlington to see physically where they needed to draw the barrier to prevent building damage during mall construction. He said generally heavy work will occur at least 10 feet from the building.
For tenants and residents, the trade-off for the mess and noise of the project is the front-row seat.
Michelle Chapman, the Burlington building manager, credited HDR for its responsiveness. She said so far, the biggest building shakes come from routine truck traffic on 10th Street.
“Before any of this started, when a truck goes across the 10th Street bridge, you can feel the building shift,” she said. “I guess I’m just used to it now.”
Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, is a building tenant. The arts group is based in the Burlington basement. She said the noise and construction don’t bother her but she does miss the trees that were cut down. She said she hopes that the project becomes a welcoming public space and “another money shot” that strengthens Omaha’s identity and gives people a reason to come downtown.
Sue Lipsey, who works for the nonprofit Partnership for Kids, based in the Burlington Building, said the machinery noise has been “annoying but not unbearable.” She described how thick the construction dust could be. As for vibrations, none yet.
Just in case, Koenig and his team will be watching that little machine inside the toolbox in the corner of her building.