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A cluster of row houses is planned to replace an old mansion-turned-funeral home south of the Old Market — a developer’s $7 million effort to help fill a dearth of new homeownership opportunities near the city’s core.
Clarity Development Co., which is buying the property at 1234 S. 10th St., says market studies show so much appetite that the partners expect to sell all the dwellings within four months.
“They will feel like a traditional home, with access to all you have in an urban lifestyle,” said Tom McLeay, Clarity president. “To me it’s the best of both worlds.”
City planners and real estate experts also have said that newly constructed, single-family homes are the next logical housing wave following the proliferation of multifamily apartment buildings that in recent years have helped changed the face of downtown Omaha and its fringes.
Clarity plans to begin construction this spring at the site of the John E. Johnston & Son, Miller and Salanitro Funeral Home, which was built as a 6,400-square-foot home in 1886.
By then, the mortuary site that includes the three-story, 16-room mansion and a large carriage house will be cleared. A March 1 auction is planned to sell a variety of fixtures, from the original woodwork and Italian fireplace tiles to the basement embalming room.
Facebook and other social media commenters, upon learning of the auction, swiftly lamented the choice not to preserve. “So sad to see something so beautiful destroyed,” one post said. Another said, “This makes my stomach hurt. What a loss of a historical piece of Omaha.”
McLeay said he explored options, including incorporating the mansion, and was discouraged by barriers including asbestos and lead paint and its former use as a mortuary.
“There was a whole host of things you’d have to remedy to convert it,” he said. “It doesn’t naturally convert into anything.”
As envisioned, two rows of Colonial Revival-style buildings would be built on the one-acre tract. The symmetrical strips — containing 27 homes — would stretch from 10th Street to 11th Street, face each other and be separated by a courtyard intended to promote neighborly interaction.
Nate Gieselman of RDG Planning and Design said architects were striving for the right balance between old and new.
“The neighborhood has a really strong historic fabric, and we want to recognize and build upon that,” he said. “But there also are a lot of very modern buildings being constructed in that area.”
Each home would span at least 1,300 square feet, rise three stories and be topped with a rooftop deck. They would have two bedrooms and at least one garage apiece. Gieselman said exteriors would be limited to colors with a historical feel, and brick.
The complex’s name, William Rows, is a nod to its 10th and William Streets locale and the mansion’s longtime owner, William Johnston.
McLeay said he personally has owned other property in the Little Italy area since 2007 and has had his eye on the funeral home for about a year. That’s about how long he and partners Mike Peter, Ben Katt and Neeraj Agarwal have had Clarity Development. Other ongoing Clarity projects include two new midtown apartment buildings, one at 3824 Farnam St. and the other at 401 S. 41st St., which would add about 90 units in the Blackstone District.
McLeay and one of his current partners worked previously with America First Real Estate Group, which has developed condo and apartment projects in downtown.
Also a real estate attorney at Smith, Gardner, Slusky Law, McLeay is chairman of the newly created Omaha Municipal Land Bank.
For William Rows, it took months to negotiate with the 79-year-old funeral home owner, who last summer talked of not wanting to see the building bulldozed and was asking $575,000. McLeay declined to name the purchase price.
A small parcel at the site also required each of the Miller kids — there are nine, scattered in various cities — to sign off. (Kenneth and Louise Miller owned the funeral home before Johnston took over.)
Since the property has no local landmark designation, there is no city board approval necessary to demolish. Various other city approvals are ahead, including a request for $1.1 million in tax-increment financing.
Clarity plans to set the starting price for individual row houses at $199,000. Target audiences are young professionals and empty-nesters seeking an urban lifestyle — and their own front door.
Jerry Hoffman of the Lincoln-based Hoffman Strategy Group, which has studied Omaha and other residential and retail markets nationally, said there hasn’t been a similar project built in the area since before 2008. And, he said, most of the Rows at SoMa near 12th and Leavenworth Streets, and the Giovanna Rows and Towns at Little Italy to the south, are occupied.
Hoffman said growth in the number of households in downtown and neighborhoods to the south are projected to grow 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared with 7 percent for the city as a whole.
Meanwhile, many young professionals who recently settled in and near downtown will marry, grow their income and think about sinking roots.
“They’re going to look at single-family housing options,” Hoffman said. “If they like living downtown, they’re going to want to buy downtown. That is what is happening in other cities.”
Baby boomers are another group that, he said, increasingly want to live closer to cultural and sporting events downtown.
McLeay said he did not plan to seek expansion on to the adjacent Sons of Italy property, where an eclectic group of club members, politicians and more gather Thursday afternoons for spaghetti. “It’s part of the neighborhood,” he said.
Across the street is St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and All Saints Catholic School, where McLeay’s wife, Colleen, is the development director.
McLeay said the funeral home, on the other hand, had “lost its context.”
He foresees continued demand for single-family housing in the area. “The combination of the neighborhood setting and proximity to downtown is just really compelling.”
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Video tour of the home