A new two-block-long plaza lined with new housing, restaurants, offices and green space is the centerpiece of a proposed $500 million redevelopment that would dramatically change the Conagra Brands downtown Omaha campus.

Conagra announced Friday that it selected Hines, a Houston-based global real estate firm, to lead the reboot of its sprawling riverfront home that lost its corporate flag last year to Chicago.

Envisioned as a 10-year project that breaks ground in 2019, the initiative would build nine new structures containing roughly 500,000 square feet of office space, more than 80,000 square feet of retail space, a boutique hotel with up to 200 rooms and about 900 new residences.

Tom D’Arcy, Hines’ senior managing director, told The World-Herald that the design has been in the making for about six months. It activates unoccupied space and aims to better connect the Old Market and downtown’s 10th Street with the Heartland of America Park and lake.

“It’s really an invitation to the public to say: ‘Come down to the lake, this is how you get there,’ ” D’Arcy said.

One of the current Conagra buildings would be demolished to make way for the two-lane plaza that would effectively extend Harney Street two blocks from 10th Street to the lake. People then could dine and socialize on the new deck area or kayak in the water.

Four other buildings owned by Conagra would remain intact. Those structures were remodeled last year as the Conagra workforce was downsized to about 1,200 and concentrated to the southern end of the campus.

One building that was vacated has turned into a multi-tenant office building to be leased in part by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Sherwood Foundation.

Mayor Jean Stothert, who is out of the office until Monday, issued this statement on the Conagra announcement:

"Conagra has a long history in Omaha as a business leader and civic and philanthropic partner. The announcement to develop 'River Crossing' on its downtown campus continues the company’s commitment to our city long into the future.

"It has always been Conagra’s intent to make a substantial investment in Omaha. Together, with our plans to develop the waterfront and the Gene Leahy Mall, 'River Crossing' will change downtown Omaha immensely in the years ahead.

"This is a turning point for the 1,200 Conagra employees who work on the campus and all of us who live and work in Omaha.

"We are more than thrilled and look forward to our continued partnership with Conagra.''

Under the plan, a tunnel system that already connects the Conagra buildings would be further extended to allow employees easy access to the plaza area.

Indeed, company spokes­woman Mindy Simon said, employees might never have to put on a coat in the winter to go from a home on the campus to their desk and, later, to a restaurant or a shop.

Said D’Arcy: “Think of it as a 24-7 live, work, play community that is open to the entire community.”

Main elements of the plan:

» The plaza extension of Harney Street leads to the lake. Visitors walking along the corridor could shop, eat or relax on a sloping green lawn whose zig-zag path winds to the dock area.

» Along the south side of the plaza would be a hotel with up to 200 rooms; a 300-unit apartment building and a low-rise residential structure with condominiums.

» On the north side of the corridor would be a 280-unit apartment complex with parking and about 50,000 square feet of restaurant-focused retail space. A 250,000-square-foot office building would rise, too.

» Farther south on the Conagra campus would rise another office building of about 250,000 square feet and a residential high-rise containing up to 250 units, either condos or apartments.

Sean Connolly, president and chief executive officer of Conagra Brands, said the company chose Hines as developer because of its track record and “community-oriented vision.”

“Connecting our property to the rest of downtown and improving access to the lake will be hallmarks of this project,” Connolly said.

Hines, partnering with local commercial real estate company Bear Properties, would start in the summer of 2019 building structures north of the plaza, D’Arcy said. He said further phases would be built as tenants were identified.

At this point, no businesses are committed to any of the space, D’Arcy said, largely because Conagra wanted to keep details private until now and there had been no marketing.

Hines and Conagra corporate officials were in town Thursday to unveil their plan to city officials. Far from being a done deal, the redevelopment requires various approvals, including a likely request for tax-increment financing that would defray eligible public improvement expenses.

Notwithstanding the scope and cost, D’Arcy said he is optimistic of success.

“We’re very confident it will fill up, it’s just a question of when.”

As planned, Hines — a big hitter in development circles, with 3,900 employees operating in 21 countries — would buy the parcels from Conagra and develop in phases. It would be responsible for financing and any zoning changes, D’Arcy said.

No stranger to Omaha, Hines developed Union Pacific’s downtown headquarters at 14th and Douglas Streets that opened in 2004. The $100 billion company, founded in 1957, has 113 developments currently underway around the world, according to company materials.

Among its current developments is the 53W53 building in New York, an 82-story building above the Museum of Modern Art.

D’Arcy said his company, chosen from a slate of candidates, is eager to get started. He said it was “almost unheard of” to find a site of that size with its natural features abutting a historic neighborhood like the Old Market.

More than 20 historic buildings were demolished between 1988 and 1989 in Omaha’s Jobbers Canyon to make way for the Conagra campus. Some of the buildings on the six-acre site had become dilapidated and then-ConAgra CEO Mike Harper said he wanted them torn down for the suburban-style campus ConAgra would eventually build. Preservationists, architects and others said the buildings had plenty of good use left in them and decried the felling of century-old warehouses that years later, they said, could have been turned into an extension of the Old Market, with big, old brick condos, shops and restaurants. A city plan in the 1970s had called for the buildings to be reused, but private developers hadn’t bitten. By the late 1980s, ConAgra’s Harper called them “ugly red brick buildings.”

Simon, the spokeswoman for the new Conagra, said the food giant benefits from the redevelopment project by getting a more vibrant campus for its employees. Being a workforce with a “foodie culture,” she said employees crave connection to great restaurants that would be added to the campus.

“We’re excited to create a beautiful space not just for our 1,200 employees, but for the city,” she said.

Stay with Omaha.com for more on this developing story.

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