Facing continuing criticism from the public, Omaha Performing Arts leaders dropped their downtown property acquisition deal like a hot potato Monday.

The surprise move came one week before a City Council vote that most likely would have approved a city plan to buy three century-old buildings for a future expansion of the Holland Center.

Perhaps more importantly, the move followed a contentious City Council public hearing in which opponents of the land deal lined up to criticize Omaha Performing Arts as well as Stothert's plan to buy the buildings.

The nonprofit arts organization still will sell the parking lot that it owns to HDR Inc. for the architecture and engineering firm's new downtown Omaha headquarters, said Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts president.

But it is no longer pursuing any city or private land, she said.

The arts group is backing out of its redevelopment agreement with the City of Omaha. That means the city's controversial proposal to use $11 million in taxpayer-funded bonds to buy property at 11th and Douglas Streets, east of the Holland Center, is off.

Squires said the arts group will continue working with HDR and the city on alternatives to provide for Holland Center growth and parking, as well as parking for HDR.

Omaha Performing Arts leaders mainly talked about the controversy in announcing their decision Monday in a press conference at the Holland Center.

"The controversy and divisiveness surrounding our expansion project is not healthy or productive, and that ends today," Squires said.

She said the controversy has overshadowed the arts group's accomplishments and had become a distraction.

D. David Slosburg, a member of the Omaha Performing Arts board, said the board "very much values its brand."

Asked whether the controversy had begun to affect donations or ticket sales, Slosburg said the board places importance on "keeping our brand pristine."

The HDR project had caused the board to accelerate its time frame for future expansion, Slosburg said. Monday's decision, he said, allows the board to return to its original time frame.

Omaha Performing Arts will spend the next several months talking with arts groups, donors and the community about the long-range future, he said.

Slosburg said Omaha Performing Arts was trying to be "a good community partner" by agreeing to sell its parking lot property, as long as the organization could accommodate its long-term programming and educational needs and "not reduce our level of patron services."

"In the end, the project just became too divisive," Slosburg said.

He said the organization is "taking a leap of faith" by selling the future HDR site, which Omaha Performing Arts had bought for its own possible expansion, without having an alternate site locked up.

Stothert welcomed the decision.

She said she was grateful that Omaha Performing Arts will still sell its parking lot land to HDR.

Stothert said she was surprised when John Gottschalk, chairman of the Omaha Performing Arts board, called her at noon Monday to say the group was withdrawing its desire to acquire the 11th and Douglas land and buildings.

Stothert said she talked briefly with HDR Chairman and CEO George Little on Monday. She said Little told her that HDR hopes to break ground as planned early this summer.

Stothert noted that she still opposed demolishing the Christian Specht building for parking, which had been talked about as a possibility for a Holland Center expansion.

"I think they (Omaha Performing Arts leaders) realized, as everyone did, that there was a public outcry and a sentiment that they didn't want those buildings destroyed for what the public considered a parking garage," Stothert said.

The city will work with HDR and the arts group on parking alternatives, she said.

Stothert mentioned last week's City Council hearing on the redevelopment plan.

The arts group's leaders "listened to what the public said," Stothert said.

At the public hearing last week, more than a dozen Omahans asked the council to not approve the proposal forwarded by Stothert. They objected to the $11 million price tag and Omaha Performing Arts' original plan to knock down the buildings to build a parking garage.

Performing arts officials had backed off the parking garage plan but said they needed the land for a future Holland expansion.

Squires said Monday that the organization "still has many conversations continuing about parking."

Jackie Fox, a spokeswoman for HDR, said company officials were not involved with the group's decision to withdraw its request.

Councilman Chris Jerram, whose district includes the Holland Center, said he respects Omaha Performing Arts' decision and looks forward "to the discussion on a more long-term basis on how they can best serve the community's needs."

He said it was a "significant sacrifice" for the organization to sell the parking lot land to HDR for just the sale price — $3 million — without receiving land for its own future expansion.

City Councilman Pete Festersen commended the performing arts organization "for taking time to plan for its expansion while ensuring the new HDR headquarters moves forward."

"It's a great opportunity to bring our history together with our future growth," Festersen said.

The three buildings in question are the Christian Specht, which has been designated as a local landmark, the Happy Hollow Coffee building and a building that houses Alvine and Associates.

Larry Jobeun, an attorney who represents the owners of the three buildings, said he learned of the announcement about 40 minutes before the press conference.

"I don't know that anyone's had a real chance to digest any of this — it's so new," Jobeun said. "Everyone was really surprised and shocked by that at this late stage in the game."

Brian Smith, a critic of the deal, said the performing arts group had sought approval for its plan too quickly for the public to be able to digest it.

"The people were caught off guard," he said, "and also were unhappy that there was no direct building plan for this."

Craig Moody, the chairman of ModeShift Omaha and another critic, said he's happy to see the performing arts group take a more deliberate approach.

He said testimony at last week's council meeting could have contributed to the change of heart.

"The oppositional testimony was so articulate and thoughtful and well-reasoned," he said. "It wasn't people standing there with pitchforks in hand."

Moody said the issue had proven divisive.

Performing arts officials "were kind of creating a cavern between different subsets of the community, which was not going to serve them well in the long run," he said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com twitter.com/chrisburbach

"I think they (Omaha Performing Arts leaders) realized, as everyone did, that there was a public outcry and a sentiment that they didn't want those buildings destroyed for what the public considered a parking garage."

Mayor Jean Stothert

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