Christian Christensen hasn't eaten for more than a year. • The tongue cancer also stole his old voice. Now the real estate developer, one of the city's most widely known, relies on colleagues to make presentations touting or defending his projects. • But Christensen also has found reasons to be grateful for the one-two punch from cancer and an aneurysm that robbed him of once-routine pleasures like tasting a steak and chitchatting. • The husband, father of three boys and founder of Bluestone Development has emerged with a renewed spirit that scopes out the positive. He says he better appreciates things that earlier sped by during a fast-rising career that's left a mark on Omaha's urban landscape. • And he says he's determined to do more. Indeed, Christensen and wife Debra — also his business partner — are on the verge of their biggest apartment project yet. • Forging ahead, Christensen said he clings to the family motto that helped slay the stage-four monster: "We got this."
Christian Christensen, owner of Bluestone Development, says a one-two punch from cancer and an aneurysm left him with a renewed spirit.
Christensen, 52, is the vision behind some of the city's most cutting-edge housing projects — among them downtown's Rows at SoMa, Little Italy's townhouses and midtown's millennial-magnet Spaces Apartments.
The creations flowed, he said, from a love for building instilled as a child growing up in Carter Lake.
Dad Christian Christensen Sr. was a construction worker. Mom Mary caved often to her son's pleas to tote him to a warehouse where he'd gather pallets to use for building stuff in his dad's workshop.
In high school, shop class was Christensen's favorite. He earned cash as a construction laborer, and later landed a commercial brokerage position.
Then in 2001, he and Debra launched their own company they named after a photo that caught their eye at an Old Market bookstore. To Christensen, that image — a delicate hand holding a blue stone — reflected a business philosophy the couple adhere to still today.
Like the soft hand on the book cover, he said, a home is personal and emotional. "But (like the stone), every decision we make is for the long term — solid."
Christensen's entry into the development scene came with the downtown Omaha Joslyn Lofts, followed by redevelopment of the Old Market Mayfair building. But the next one — conversion of the Butternut Coffee building into upscale housing — would be a defining event for the fledgling firm.
One month from tenant move-ins, Christensen got a call about a fire at the nine-story complex. The accidental four-alarm inferno smoldered for days.
Christensen wanted desperately to save the building along 10th Street, one of few remnants from the historic Jobbers Canyon district razed to make way for the ConAgra Foods campus.
But burnt and crumbling gravel between bricks would mean its demise, he said. "It hit me ... that 100 percent of our revenue in the business" had just gone up in smoke.
Four days before that 2004 fire, Debra had quit her public accounting job to devote all of her time to Bluestone. Sorting out insurance would take seven years. Bluestone's SoMa row house project was in the design stage. Would the business survive?
Christensen credited its survival, in part, to problem-solving skills he honed in his dad's construction workshop.
Helping also was confidence from investors and others, including then-city planning director Robert Peters.
Now an urban planning consultant, Peters lives with his wife, Barbara, in a Bluestone condo development — Peters calls it the best view and neighborhood downtown. He said that Christensen at an early age understood the housing market and consumer cravings, and continues to bring "radical" yet "timeless experiences" to scores of residents.
"He always tried to create something that was authentic, and broke a bit of new ground, which for an emerging developer is pretty unexpected and rare," Peters said.
Longtime restaurateurs, the Caniglia brothers, sought out Christensen in the mid-2000s to redevelop the family's original restaurant site on Seventh Street. Ron Caniglia said they wanted to see Little Italy revived, but in a way that reflected its roots.
"We thought Christian's project would be the one to get it started, and it did," Ron said.
Bluestone rode out the 2008 housing collapse and Great Recession, finishing the final phase of the SoMa neighborhood's loft condos near 11th and Leavenworth Streets. "It was hard," Debra said, looking back on the market crisis.
The firm shifted focus from for-sale housing to apartments, including the 9ines and 22 Floors, in north downtown, and then returned to Little Italy with the 8 Street Apartments. By then, the market was churning again.
Bluestone nonetheless took a risk with construction of a 154-unit, $15 million market-rent complex in a midtown neighborhood still battling a crime-heavy image.
Spaces was a hit when it opened in 2014 with "geeky cool" amenities including a bicycle workbench, bocce ball court, pet grooming room and lobby with vintage arcade games.
The amenity-rich, apartment complex was to be a model for future Bluestone efforts.
It was that same year, however, that an uncool and unwelcome visitor would seep into the Christensen household.
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Headaches and sore throats had been nagging Christensen for two years already.
Pain persisted even after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer and radioactive pills.
A switch of physicians then led to the find.
"All of a sudden you're that person," Christensen said. "You're the one sitting in front of that doctor, getting the bad news."
It was his not-so-golden 50th year, and for friends and family he jotted down his inner screams.
Said one journal entry: "I have a what? A mass that could be a tumor? No No NO. This is not happening. I don't want to hear the words ..."
Another: "So many doctors, so many appointments, so many ways to explain there is bad sh--growing in my body and if they don't wipe it out then I am wiped out, I am really getting tired."
Christensen was scared, not knowing if he'd emerge from chemotherapy the same guy, or even stick around for his kids, Max, 13, and 9-year-old twins, Finn and Ty.
From the "bag of poison" that flowed through his veins came both bad and good.
He lost 60 pounds and eight months of work.
On the flip side, daily trips for treatment allowed him quality drive time with his Pop. He directed a bathroom remodel project. Loved ones rallied. His wife and kids wrote "We got this" on their arms. A friend made bracelets with the same motto, and photos of buddies wearing them started to stream in from parts of the globe, including Peru's Machu Picchu.
Christensen said he shared moments, embraces and deep conversations with people that never would have existed had it not been for cancer.
While treatment was deemed a success, two months later Christensen suffered a severe aneurysm in a blood vessel to his tongue. An emergency tracheotomy followed. Days of sedation. The oxygen chamber. The double whammy of the aneurysm on top of cancer damaged nerves to the tongue muscle, leaving it useless to eat solid food.
Today, Christensen is cancer free. But effects linger.
Speech is affected to the point he hands over his driver's license when introducing himself. It's hard to enunciate his own name, he says. Once a guy thought he was deaf, and tried sign language. Simple chitchatting while walking down the street is out.
"Christian used to be the guy that commanded the room," said business associate and friend Mike Malone, whose firm does video production work for Bluestone. "He'd stroll in, know exactly what he wanted to accomplish. Now he listens a lot more."
Wife Debra said their social roles have flipped. "Christian was always outgoing, really good on his feet with words — the attention was always on him. I was the quieter person. That's different now."
Christensen said he knew he'd be different "coming out the other side," but chooses to look at the bright side.
Drinking his nutrients instead of eating saves a few hours a day — more time, he said, to ride motorcycles with the kids, take a hike with his wife.
"When you don't talk, you listen and learn a lot more about people," he said.
He spends twice as much time with books now — but that's also "relaxing because I hear my old voice talking to me."
Business is on a roll, with a 193-apartment project proposed at 51st and Mayberry Streets, and another in the pipeline.
To be closer to customers and better understand their needs, he'll move Bluestone headquarters to the newest site and also has taken over property management of all the firm's six apartment complexes.
"Life has come in a different form today and it will dictate a few changes," Christensen wrote after his diagnosis.
Today, he adds: "Change doesn't have to be bad. It just simply has to be."
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"Life has come in a different form today and it will dictate a few changes."
Christian Christensen, writing after his diagnosis
"Change doesn't have to be bad. It just simply has to be."