Sometimes, a big change in Omaha is announced by the metaphorical blaring of trumpets, cheered by adoring crowds and heralded by those 10,000-watt searchlights that used to crisscross the night sky at every grand opening of a Blockbuster Video.
And sometimes, giant changes in our city slip by us quietly, buried inside a 50-page annual report handed out in a mostly empty City Council chamber.
Flip to page 13, and the sneakily monumental shift is right there in black and white.
In 2017, for the first time since anyone can remember, more residential housing was built east of I-680 than west of it, the city planning report says.
This means that after decades of suburban sprawl, the data show what our own eyes already tell us — eastern Omaha is coming back in a big way.
The rebirth of some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods is great news for the future of Omaha, say city leaders and experts. Every part of Omaha.
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“Every thriving city has a thriving downtown, a thriving urban core,” says City Councilman Pete Festersen. “It’s a sense of place. It’s a city’s identity ... and it makes providing city services more affordable and more efficient. It’s a win for everyone.”
To get a better sense of this sea change, let’s consider two years.
First, the year 2000. That year, the city issued 415 residential building permits for the “central city zone,” an area that runs east to west from the Missouri River to roughly 100th Street, and north to south from State Street to roughly Q Street. For the rest of the column, let’s just call this “east Omaha.”
That same year, the city issued 2,335 residential building permits for the “present development zone,” better known as west Omaha.
To repeat: Permits for 415 new residences in east Omaha, and some 2,335 new residences — nearly six times as many — in west Omaha.
Now let’s skip ahead to 2017. Permits for new housing development in west Omaha have stayed roughly flat, falling during the Great Recession and then rebounding to 2,002 in 2017. (The 2018 numbers aren’t yet public.)
But residential permits in east Omaha have exploded, doubling in the first decade of the new millennium and then, in the past few years, doubling again.
The city issued a staggering 2,107 permits for a unit of housing in east Omaha in 2017. Almost all of these permits are for individual apartment units — most are high-end apartments, officials say.
And more than half of those permits were actually issued east of 42nd Street.
“This is a very, very significant shift,” says Steve Jensen, a former city planning director who started working for the department in 1972. As a young city planner, he watched as businesses left downtown and midtown, once-thriving apartment buildings and neighborhoods fell into disrepair, and building after building went vacant.
“It was a tough time, and we worried, how can we ever turn this around?” Jensen says. “Now, after times have changed, after tastes have changed, you go back and look again and ... I’m hopeful.”
So, what did change?
A decade or so ago, a new crop of Omahans — the youngest Gen Xers, millennials and now the young adults in Generation Z — started to clamor for a different way to live, work and play inside the city. By the numbers, we married later, had fewer children and also had less money and less desire to put a down payment on a three-bedroom house than our parents did. All this kept more of us in the city core.
This lifestyle shift worked in tandem with the development or redevelopment of an increasing number of east Omaha business and entertainment districts. Benson. Blackstone. Midtown Crossing. The 75 North Project. North Downtown. Downtown itself. And now the South 13th Street corridor.
And, sensing that same shift, developers like Todd Heistand of NuStyle started to build or redevelop nice, new apartment buildings in east Omaha. This sort of development started as a trickle, and in recent years became a flood.
NuStyle alone is responsible for massive projects The Highline, The Wire, The Breakers and, most massively, the $108 million Atlas Project, which is transforming Creighton University Hospital into 732 apartments. In total, Heistand said NuStyle has built or rehabbed 2,500 apartment units in the past seven years. Every single one of these units is east of 42nd Street. And 80 percent of occupied units are now rented by a person under age 35.
“I honestly think demand is going to slow down a little bit, but I have said that for four straight years,” Heistand says, laughing. “We noticed that every time you brought one on, it would be full in two months. Everything we’re doing is filling up.”
This sort of growth matters because it’s growth, but also because of where it’s occurring, say city officials. East Omaha growth is much more efficient and less costly because the city infrastructure is already largely in place. You don’t have to put in roads, police stations or sewer lines when east Omaha grows, Festersen says.
This type of growth often buoys formerly dilapidated areas of town, boosting the tax base for the city and for Omaha Public Schools, says Derek Miller, the city’s long-range planning manager.
And it’s important because of geography, too. Omaha simply can’t grow that much farther out before it hits the Elkhorn River or the Douglas County line.
Explosive growth in suburbs like Bennington, Gretna, and Papillion and La Vista is nice, of course, but it doesn’t help the city of Omaha itself nearly as much as growth inside the city limits.
Long-range estimates have the city running out of undeveloped suburban land somewhere between the years 2040 and 2060, Miller says.
“As we run out of suburban land, we’re gonna have to start growing up,” Miller says. “So if we can do both at the same time, that’s the best way to go.”
The comeback of east Omaha, at least as measured by new residential permits, is expected to slow this year. NuStyle, for example, is completing the Atlas project as well as the redevelopment and expansion of the downtown Wells Fargo Bank building and then taking a breather, Heistand says.
But everyone I interviewed sees a continued brighter future for the older half of the city. The Heritage Services-backed riverfront redevelopment project will bring more families east, Jensen predicts. Heistand guesses that a condo project or two will have the same effect. And increased focus on non-car transportation, including a possible streetcar, will explode the areas between downtown and midtown, they say.
“I hope this freight train continues,” says Pete Festersen. “And I think it will.”