When retired heart surgeon Deepak Gangahar took his wife to see the downtown Omaha neighborhood where he wanted to build an upscale hotel, she fell silent, then asked: Would you be willing to move into this environment?
“Absolutely,” Gangahar recalled telling his wife, cardiologist Dr. Kiran Gangahar. He and business partner Kirti Trivedi saw something beyond the shady characters and boarded up storefronts lurking that evening around 24th and Farnam Streets.
They saw signs of renewal and promise in the corridors that connected burgeoning midtown neighborhoods to the west and downtown’s central business district to the east.
Still, uneasiness felt by many visitors, especially at night, was not lost on the principal investors of Anant Enterprises.
In part to protect their own investment, Gangahar and Trivedi set out to accelerate transformation of the blight around their fitness-centric Even Hotel northeast of 24th and Farnam Streets, which within weeks will welcome its first official travelers.
Later this month, Anant developers will present to the City Council a $21 million plan to clean up another commercial strip southwest of the $20 million Even Hotel.
They also have purchased, and eventually hope to bring back to life, a vacant 10,000-square-foot retail building across 24th Street from the Even.
Meanwhile, unrelated entities have their own projects in motion to resuscitate nearby gaps. Among those: the Farnam 25 commercial redevelopment in the old 7,000-square-foot Smoke Pit BBQ building, and further renovation of the historic Kellogg Building at 2450 Harney St.
“The era of the slumlord is over,” declared Ben Swan, referring to the pocket around the Kellogg building that he and his wife, Eryn, bought and started to rehabilitate three years ago.
Swan said area property owners are becoming more active in protecting the neighborhood. He is among merchants who expect to benefit from the six-level Even Hotel’s pedestrian traffic as well as Anant’s other projects in the works.
Under Anant’s latest redevelopment package, another hotel, a five-story Holiday Inn Express, would be built on multiple parcels southwest of 24th Avenue and Farnam Street. The proposed 100-suite hotel with an indoor pool and fitness center would rise on the site of an old convenience store and gas station where, most recently, MJ Fashions failed to thrive.
City planners are supportive, saying the “Formula Blue” new Holiday Inn prototype would improve the corner, whose soil is plagued with chemicals and subsoil contamination. The hotel also would have ground-floor retail.
In the long-vacant historic Hupmobile warehouse to the west, at 2523 Farnam, Anant proposes eight loft-style, market-rate apartments and ground-floor offices totaling 25,000 square feet of finished space.
Built in 1917, the Hupmobile originally was a dealership, service shop and factory branch. It later housed a flight school and a manufacturer of diverse items such as ship parts, water heaters and coffins. Since 2003, though, city leaders said the property — both a city and federal landmark for architectural significance and cultural ties with Omaha’s Automobile Row — has been vacant and frequented by drug addicts and derelicts.
Anant is requesting up to $4 million in tax-increment financing to offset eligible expenses, and the City Planning Board has recommended approval.
Tax-increment financing, designed as an urban-renewal tool to propel projects that otherwise would not be financially feasible, has been tapped by area developers including NuStyle, which Anant describes as a pioneer of the downtown renaissance.
Among NuStyle Development’s nearby projects is the Highline apartments converted from the old Northern Natural Gas office tower. Earlier this year, the developer finished construction of a Highline addition that features more apartments and an outdoor swimming pool.
NuStyle co-owner Todd Heistand said he is encouraged by the Anant hotels, which should bring more around-the-clock traffic to the neighborhood.
He says, however, that redevelopment momentum around 24th and Farnam Streets is slower than it should be, and could be jolted if public officials launched a streetcar system to link downtown, midtown and the growing University of Nebraska Medical Center.
To Swan, bad roadway configurations also stifle what could be a more livable and walkable environment along Farnam and Harney arteries near 24th. Streets and crossroads are too wide and hard to maneuver on foot, he said, and one-way traffic is dangerously fast-moving.
Despite its barriers, Swan said his neighborhood near 24th and Farnam Streets is progressing.
Next year, Swan and his wife plan to invest about $1 million to build out the top two floors of their 100-year-old Kellogg structure into apartments, Airbnb short-term residential rental space, and offices. Street-level bays currently house her Wag boutique pet shop, his Greenstreet Cycles and the MugLife Coffee shop.
The couple are buying another parcel in the area but aren’t ready to talk details other than it is eyed as a mix of uses.
Earlier this year, a California-based developer paid $2.3 million for the Harney Court U-shaped apartments to the west of the Swans’ building (and behind the Hupmobile). Honor Bulkley of Round Hill Pacific said her investment group likes to buy and improve older inner-city residential buildings with architectural merit.
The century-old Harney Court “fits that bill,” she said, as did other area apartment buildings the group has purchased since 2012, including in the Blackstone District to the west.
She said street changes in Blackstone slowed down cars and encouraged pedestrian traffic, and she could see the same enhancing residential and retail success around Harney Court.
Other area redevelopment includes Arch Icon Development’s Junction, a structure catty-corner to Even that’s been converted to commercial and residential space.
Arch Icon also turned a former crime magnet neighborhood a few blocks to the south into the recently opened multimillion-dollar Flats on Howard apartment community.
It’s creative transformation of vacant structures that caught the eye of Anant.
“We don’t like abandoned buildings. They’re an invitation for vandalism,” Gangahar said.
He said Anant hopes for a streetcar to connect the corridors with other developing nodes. In the meantime, he said, Anant aims to gain control of its environment by buying and turning around properties.
“Whether it comes or not,” Gangahar said, “we need to clean up our own backyard.”
Trivedi said he eagerly awaits the day residential and business support is great enough to turn ground-floor space in the Even Hotel building to retail outlets. Until demand reaches that point, the bays will be used for hotel support services.
The hotel’s Cork & Kale restaurant could be a game-changer. Its baked foods, salads, tasty yet nutritional smoothies and desserts are expected to pull in local patrons that hadn’t ventured to that area. Open to the public as well is the bar in the open-air lobby that will serve creative cocktails with a fitness bent.
Also featured is a hotel swimming pool and fitness area. Each individual suite is equipped with its own spin cycle, exercise cork floor and built-in workout pole for resistance bands.
Among the 35 to 40 employees is a hula hoop instructor, aqua aerobics instructor and someone to lead groups on outside bike rides.
Amenities — including mood lighting, huge windows and a honeymoon suite bathroom the size of a small New York apartment — have won over skeptics, Trivedi said.
In the year since construction began, Gangahar said his wife also has become “a believer.”
He and Trivedi plan to reinforce their commitment to the neighborhood by moving Anant’s headquarters to the Hupmobile’s first floor, providing the city approves their plan.
They said they know there is still much work to be done.
“It’s a process,” Gangahar said. “Brick by brick, we need to keep chipping away.”