Just off Benson’s main business strip sits a 70-year-old warehouse stained by oil and filled with dust. To Jeff Dolezal and his partners, it’s the next frontier — a place TACK- architects is buying after growing six years in a startup incubator in Omaha’s north downtown.
The agency’s planned move from leased space to a place it will own and shape into Bin 61 marks not only the maturation of a local agency, but also another stride for Benson.
TACKarchitects will bring a professional office hub to what largely has become an entertainment-centric commercial area. More office users are expected to follow, as more structures are set to rise in the area or be converted to offices.
It’s a welcome turn for the historic Benson as merchants and business leaders agree that steady daytime population and activity are vital to growth and stability.
“This is exactly the type of development we’re encouraging for the next evolution of Benson,” City Councilman Pete Festersen said of the architectural firm’s project. “We’ve been successful with restaurants, arts and entertainment, and now we’re seeing a critical mass of daytime uses such as apartments, bank branches, law firms and architecture firms — all of which appreciate and add to the new vibe of the area.”
TACKarchitects stands out in that it plans a roughly $1.5 million investment in an old auto dealership warehouse at 2922 N. 61st St., sparking a different use on the less-traveled industrial artery off the Maple Street corridor.
The architectural group plans to use about half of the 8,500 square feet and lease out sections to office users including a videographer and a private foundation. In all, Dolezal expects up to 30 people to work at the site, which is scheduled to open early next year.
To be sure, a smattering of professional offices already share the core commercial district with eclectic shops and retailers that have gravitated there in recent years. But TACKarchitects hopes its investment spurs further redevelopment of underused or vacant properties around its future digs near 61st and Binney Streets. It’s a pocket dominated currently by warehouses and garages.
Nearby, at 60th Street and the Northwest Radial, the new Benson Lights mixed-use complex also is expected to enhance the area’s 24/7 activity. A Great Western Bank branch recently opened, and the 99 apartments are opening in waves, with all units set for completion by November.
Developer Chris Erickson of City Ventures said he’d been a longtime fan of Benson and recognized that an apartment complex of such size hadn’t been built near the neighborhood’s business district in at least 50 years. The area had become popular enough, he thought, to sustain the market-rate housing.
Tapping design expertise from TACKarchitects, City Ventures built the industrial-style apartments, complete with trendy butcher-block countertops and a swimming pool.
City Ventures plans a second phase of another 40 to 50 apartments and up to 10,000 square feet of loft-style offices targeting creative professionals. He said design could start next year with possible construction in 2019.
“We believe the next wave of use coming to Benson is going to be the cultural creative group in the office sector,” said Erickson, who also is on the business district board.
Yet more office space is to come to the historic Bank of Benson building at 6108 Maple St., said Jim Johnson, who along with business partner Marc Leibowitz bought the 6,300-square-foot structure about a month ago.
The two — who also own popular haunts such as Benson’s Waiting Room Lounge, Reverb Lounge and Krug Park — have tapped TACKarchitects for the renovation but don’t yet have a projection for the cost.
A restaurant likely will fill the ground level, Johnson said. Others replacing the former dental lab tenant include a designer and a concert production company.
Johnson, a Benson merchant for a decade, said he sees progress in projects such as the Bright Lights apartment complex and planned TACKarchitects office hub.
“A little more traditional development,” he said, that can open doors to a broader clientele living and visiting the area.
When Johnson and Leibowitz opened the Waiting Room rock club 10 years ago at 6212 Maple St., they joined neighborhood staples already on the strip such as Jane’s Health Market and the Pizza Shoppe Collective.
Bigger crowds soon converged on the area, seeking live entertainment provided by the new venue and others that followed.
More small retailers and restaurants set up shop.
Private and public funds have pushed more than $2.5 million in public infrastructure investment into the district since about 2010, Councilman Festersen said.
A business improvement district was formed, and property owners contributed funds to maintain lights, landscaping and sidewalks.
“We’re kind of filling up now,” Johnson said.
Festersen said the unified effort by business owners, tenants and the city was deliberate and planned. Benson has benefited as well, he said, from the national and local trend that’s revived neighborhood business districts such as Dundee, Millard and Blackstone.
Challenges loom also, he said. With an increase in visitors and residents, he said, area leaders are looking at how to improve parking availability.
Overall, Festersen said, the pace and payoff so far in Benson exceeded many expectations.
Festersen sees Benson in the future also growing westward, between 67th and 72nd Streets.
Meanwhile, the architects have cleared out their future digs that most recently housed a floor cleaning business and a barber. Before the auto-related warehouse was built in 1946, lumber and materials were stored on the land.
TACKarchitects owners and founders Dolezal, Rebecca Harding and Chris Houston plan to return the structure to its 1940s form and install features aimed at luring people to the spot.
The connecting parking area the group bought, for example, will be wired for food trucks, movie nights and public events. A sidewalk is to be added along the north side of the property. Landscaping is coming.
Metal paneling out front is to be torn off and the facade restored to its original brick.
Windows cemented shut will be opened; natural light will spill in through an upper wall to be pierced with glass.
“We very much want to be a part of the Benson fabric,” Dolezal said.
While the principals at the firm like north downtown and the Mastercraft space they lease at 1111 N. 13th St., they said it felt a bit like an island. They wanted an environment where more people lived, worked and played.
“We’d never go to an office park,” Harding said. “That’s just not a good fit for us.”
Moreover, Houston said, the group was at the point of wanting to invest in its own property.
Dolezal said they found no available places for sale in their price range that fit their needs in north downtown.
He approached the previous owner of the Benson property when it was not even for sale. When that owner was ready to retire, the architects seized the opportunity to buy what they’re calling Bin 61.
They foresee continued expansion of their workforce, which now numbers 11. Dolezal said that will occur in the new home that has room to grow.
”We’re planting a flag in Benson, putting down roots,” he said.