With the pace of redevelopment picking up on 13th Street south of downtown Omaha, a city study will look at how to slow down traffic and make the street more friendly to pedestrians.
The study, focusing on 13th Street from Interstate 480 in downtown Omaha to Interstate 80 in South Omaha, will be paid for mostly by the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.
The study area includes a stretch anchored by the former Bohemian Cafe building, now under renovation, and a mixture of industrial businesses, restaurants, housing, and vacant lots and storefronts. It will also look at 13th Street through the heart of downtown and the Old Market.
Among the questions it’s likely to contemplate: Should 13th Street be shrunk from four to three lanes south of downtown; should it be converted from one-way to two-way traffic in downtown proper; and what changes to the street, if any, do residents and merchants want to happen?
The inquiry is formally known as the 13th Street Corridor Walkability Study. The city expects it to cost $125,000. The money will come from a $100,000 grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, plus $25,000 from the City of Omaha.
The MAPA money comes from federal Surface Transportation Block Grant funding. For the first time, MAPA this year is using some of that funding to give small grants to local initiatives that focus on improving walkability, mass transit and bicycle infrastructure. The agency is giving a total of $300,000 to four projects.
MAPA also awarded $87,500 to Metro Transit for a development plan; $80,000 to Council Bluffs for a walkability master plan; and $30,000 to Sarpy County for an arterial and collector road location study.
The projects align with the goals of Heartland 2050, said Jeff Spiehs, MAPA’s community relations manager. That’s a coordinated planning effort for metropolitan Omaha-Council Bluffs.
The City of Omaha applied for funding to analyze South 13th Street.
“The objective of this corridor study is to analyze and determine how to best utilize the existing right-of-way to accommodate all users, including automobiles, transit, bicycles, pedestrians, and on-street parking,” the city’s application says.
The study will involve public outreach, including forming a stakeholder committee and holding at least two public meetings. The current conditions on 13th Street will be analyzed, along with the potential effects of changes to the street. The consultant then will make recommendations to the city.
“The study is not to impose, but to see how the city can really support the work and momentum on 13th Street, and in some ways really get out of the way of the development there,” Spiehs said.
Colleen Mason, a P.J. Morgan sales and leasing agent, said developers have been meeting with South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance members.
There’s a general feeling in the neighborhood, among people there a long time as well as real estate developers, that traffic moves too fast, Mason said.
“There are very wide lanes and traffic just flies down there,” she said.
Mason sees slowing down the cars and trucks — and making it better for pedestrians and cyclists as well as vehicles — as important to the neighborhood’s future vitality. She hopes the walkability study leads to slowing down the traffic.
If the city does take steps to make the area more walkable, it’s yet to be determined how it would do so.
A variety of methods have been employed around Omaha in neighborhood commercial district rebirths. Some streets with four lanes have been narrowed to two. Some sidewalks have been made extra wide at intersections, creating bump-outs that squeeze traffic and shorten the distance to cross the street. In some places, parallel parking has been switched to diagonal parking. Painted bike lanes have been added to some streets.
There has been discussion in the neighborhood that 13th Street, now four lanes wide, could be reduced to three — one going each way and one turn lane. Arnie Breslow, president of the Old Market South Neighborhood Association, said he has heard from people in the neighborhood who are “very nervous” about that concept, and he’s not sure it’s a good idea. He worries that it might constrict traffic so much that people would have a hard time getting in and out of the neighborhood and its businesses.
Breslow does want to see 13th Street traffic slowed. He likes corner bump-outs for that.
“It needs to be more walkable, but it’s just never going to be leisure lane,” Breslow said. “There’s too much going on for that.”