When a bold developer eight years ago started reviving deteriorated apartments in a crime-ridden Park Avenue pocket west of downtown Omaha, there was no shortage of skepticism.
It was a financial risk.
Fast forward to today, and that developer is joined by a host of others riding the rental rehab wave in the area. Their business is boosted by renewed popularity with living in the urban core.
Now Park Avenue is about to step it up another notch. A batch of 12 newly constructed single-family homes — selling for upward of $300,000 and featuring rooftop decks and garages — is poised to open along the corridor next spring.
Milestone Development’s $3.6 million Courtyard on Park Townhomes project stands out on that re-energized stretch between about Harney Street to Woolworth Avenue in that it’s new construction targeting homeowners rather than renters.
A competing developer, Uptown Urban Dwellings, a few years ago started building its own wave of for-sale housing in the area, though not on the main Park Avenue strip. Those are going for between $200,000 and $300,000.
Real estate and community leaders say the townhouse project at 1007 Park Ave. broadens housing options in a transitioning area that already is one of the metro area’s most diverse, ethnically and socioeconomically.
Most agree that recent shifts have improved the look and safety of the area, though neighborhood advocacy group InCommon Community Development remains wary that too much modernization will push out more lower-income, longtime residents.
“It’s a newer and shinier Park Avenue,” said InCommon’s Executive Director Christian Gray. “We’re in a good spot in terms of being a place where people feel like they can invest.”
But, he said, the question remains: Who benefits?
Colliding interests have brought together a wide-ranging group, from private developers and merchants to low-income residents, that aims to create a road map for growth. Boosted by $62,000 from the Kiewit Foundation and Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, the team hired RDG Planning & Design and eventually plans to ask the City Council to adopt their plan for the area.
Gray believes the process could become a model for other older neighborhoods whose landscape and identity start to change because of proximity to a growing downtown or nearby job magnets.
Dave Fanslau, Omaha planning director, said he does not see real estate redevelopment stopping any time soon around midtown’s Park Avenue — at least while the University of Nebraska Medical Center is still growing.
“There is more to come,” he said.
To be sure, the area has transformed in many ways since Urban Village revamped that cluster of buildings with about 140 apartments centered on Leavenworth Street along Park Avenue. Urban Village officials have said they were propelled by Mutual of Omaha’s then-new, $365 million Midtown Crossing mixed-use campus.
Toward the northern end of the Park Avenue corridor sits the ”geeky cool” Spaces, a 154-unit millennial-oriented complex built in 2014 just off Interstate 480 at Park and Dewey Avenues. Among other changes to the south:
» Harvest Development, also known as HD Omaha, bought and rehabbed the Brenton apartments at 534 Park Ave. and the Valmont at 1016 Park Ave. (That’s across from the future Courtyard on Park Townhomes.) Bret Cain says his team revamped eight buildings and invested more than $10 million in the past eight years on the Park Avenue artery alone. That includes remodeling a former laundromat into the company headquarters, and creating a corner playground with help from InCommon.
» InCommon expects to soon launch a $14 million complete rehabilitation of two historic apartment structures, the 64-unit Bristol at 1029 Park Ave. and the Queen Anne-style Georgia Row House at 1040 S. 29th St. The two are part of an anti-gentrification mission aimed at preserving housing for low-income residents around the area. NIFA and historic tax credits are primary financing sources.
» The Uptown Urban Dwellings initiative set a goal of 99 for-sale row houses on a dozen different vacant or dilapidated housing sites throughout the Leavenworth and Park Avenue neighborhoods, for a $26 million investment. Legacy Urban Homes has taken over that effort, and so far has sold all but one of the 23 homes built, Legacy’s Peter Katt said. Another 28 are under construction.
» Urban Village has renovated and moved offices into the former convenience and liquor store it bought a couple of years ago at 830 Park Ave. That purchase made a contiguous stretch of Urban Village properties, including eight multifamily structures, along the corridor from Mason Street to St. Mary’s Avenue. Nearby, at 31st and Leavenworth Streets, the developer’s newly constructed 137-unit Midtown Triangle apartments are about 95 percent filled, said co-founder Jerry Reimer.
Of course, struggles remain. Reimer, who said his company has about $40 million invested in the Park Avenue area, is disappointed that more homeowner investment hasn’t taken hold.
He said retail activity is lagging. A bakery that moved into a commercial bay at the Triangle is thriving, Reimer said. But other retailers tell him that the area’s demographics won’t support their services.
That, and the fact that new tax incentives are available for startups in so-called distressed “opportunity zones,” has prompted Urban Village to start converting empty Triangle storefronts into space for small businesses.
Farther south near Woolworth, though, some new businesses have emerged.
Rudy Hernandez bought a building two years ago for his RHS Metal company, and his daughter, Jolien, has carved out a section for The Gold Spot Boutique. Her women’s clothing and accessories shop opened last month, and future plans include launching an ice cream shop in the building.
“We see things changing, slowly, but getting there,” said Jolien, a University of Nebraska at Omaha business major who lives in the neighborhood. “I see a lot of potential in the area.”
Another storefront, 1107 Park Ave., is being renovated for a small grocery.
What that business won’t have, apparently, is package liquor sales. Neighborhood groups, landlords and others came out in force to protest the new owner’s request. The City Council sided with them, and the merchant withdrew the application that then was to go before the state liquor commission.
Harvest Development was among those who objected, stating in a letter that it has invested tens of millions of dollars in blocks surrounding the store.
“We have no desire to risk a return to the public intoxication, urination, drug dealing, theft, vandalism, litter, prostitution and loitering that was prevalent when we arrived on Park Avenue,” founder Jim Rich said.
While Fanslau said he’s not necessarily opposed to liquor licenses, he viewed the rally as a sign that neighbors and investors want an active role in shaping the turf.
Meanwhile, the hole is dug for Milestone Development’s white brick townhomes, which will be built in two buildings with a courtyard between them.
Each two-story unit will have 1,800 square feet, a two-car garage, front patio and back deck. Half will come with rooftop decks.
The project is assisted with $585,000 in public tax-increment funds, an often-used financing tool the city has provided to similar housing projects.
Other Milestone housing in the area includes the 22-apartment Sycamore at 30th Avenue and Pacific Street. That $3 million project, built from the ground up, is on the same block as the 15-apartment Himebaugh, which had been condemned before a $2 million restoration.
Larry Jensen of Milestone Development doesn’t foresee a problem selling the $300,000-plus homes that will have the Bristol low-income apartments next door.
Katt said the Legacy row houses, once built, have sold faster than he anticipated.
Fanslau is encouraged, saying homeownership tends to strengthen a neighborhood.
“There is nothing wrong with rental, there is obviously a market for both, but neighborhoods are stronger when there is that mix.”