LINCOLN — Senior architecture students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were going to learn about urban planning by designing a mixed-use suburban development.
Then ConAgra Foods announced it would move its headquarters to Chicago and reduce its Omaha workforce. The corporate campus, a riverfront landmark for decades, suddenly became a potential redevelopment site with serious implications for downtown Omaha’s future.
“This seems like a really important moment,” said Omaha architect Emily Andersen, who would teach the architecture class with Geoff DeOld, her husband and partner in DeOld Andersen Architecture of Omaha.
So the 30 students seized the moment and spent the spring semester making the ConAgra campus, Heartland of America Park and surrounding area — about 120 acres in all — their senior studio project.
The result was 30 different ideas for the future of perhaps the most valuable, high-profile chunk of real estate in the region.
And there’s at least a chance that the students’ work can influence what actually happens at the site.
DeOld and Andersen required the students to include residences and an anchor tenant and encouraged them to show the park lagoon as filled in or greatly shrunk. (“You had to have a really good reason to keep it,” Andersen said.)
Otherwise, they let loose the students’ creativity and fledgling knowledge of urban design. Now they are looking for ways to let more people see and discuss the students’ ideas.
“They had an opportunity to take a visionary approach to what a city could look like using the ConAgra site as a starting point,” DeOld said. “We didn’t want to limit what they would do.”
The site was once home to Omaha’s Jobbers Canyon, more than 20 brick buildings that eventually came down to make way for ConAgra in the late 1980s. It remains the largest historic district ever demolished in the United States.
Now, with the student designs completed, Andersen said, “We think these proposals have the ability to further the conversation for the ConAgra/Heartland of America Park site as well as the riverfront and are interested in looking at various outlets for that discussion.”
On March 4 the students walked through the property with Andersen and DeOld as guides. They noticed that the downtown street grid — square blocks and right-angle streets — ended at 10th Street with ConAgra’s suburban-style campus.
“Tear them down,” one student said of the existing ConAgra buildings.
They walked to Lewis & Clark Landing north of the campus and around the lagoon, stopping at the small deck that overlooks the railroad tracks along the Missouri River.
By early April the students showed preliminary designs to professionals. One architect suggested that a shared green space should be in the middle of the residential neighborhood rather than along one side. Another pointed out potential barriers to pedestrian traffic.
“I know I would never want to live in that neighborhood,” one reviewer told a student, calling the density of the planned buildings “oppressive.”
With the plans revised and the semester over, most of the designs would, indeed, remove the existing ConAgra buildings.
(ConAgra still occupies the office campus, and actual plans for the site haven’t been announced, although Omahans with big imaginations have been discussing redevelopment possibilities since ConAgra announced its headquarters’ move.)
ConAgra spokesman Christopher Kircher said the company is “focused on establishing a footprint for the approximately 1,200 positions that will be remaining in Omaha.”
Meanwhile, with their class assignments coming due, several of the students’ plans gave people direct access to the Missouri River on the site’s eastern edge. Most either ignored the railroad tracks or proposed covering them with boardwalks or other structures.
Student proposals include an NFL riverfront stadium, inlets to let the river flow between city blocks, more Old Market-scale buildings and even new business districts resembling the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district.
“This is a unique case,” said professor Jeffrey Day, director of the UNL architecture program. “We have the opportunity to look at this historical situation in Omaha with the ConAgra campus as a potential location for development. What I like is these students are addressing a real situation in the community.”
The students’ ideas could influence thinking about the property, Day said.
“If the city hired a consultant to do a plan, there would be a lot of constraints on what they could do,” he said. “All of the students had some elements of reality in their projects, but they allowed themselves to be speculative beyond those.
“It’s important so people can see what the possibilities could be. It’s great to see this kind of independent speculation.”
For example, filling in the park lagoon wouldn’t bother Kalee Boehler, from Fort Collins, Colorado. Her design kept the main diagonal entry street onto the property and a parking garage, but installed sports fields where the lagoon now is.
“It was very unnecessary,” she said.
Student William Pokojski of Lincoln, whose design shows long glass tubes enclosing buildings on the site, said some of the ideas are “a little far-reaching,” but there are valuable concepts or elements.
“I think there’s a lot of wisdom in terms of specific aspects among our projects,” Pokojski said. “I believe that the city could pull moments and ideas from each of them that would work in its favor.”
Omaha architect Marty Shukert was one of the professionals who critiqued the students’ work during the semester. He was Omaha planning director when Jobbers Canyon came down to make way for the campus.
He especially liked a plan that extended the city’s small-block street grid toward the river and broke up the blocks into lots, much like the city’s original layout.
“I thought that was a different and creative approach,” Shukert said. “We are so prone to think about mega-scale projects and full-block elements and giant parking garages.
“The students didn’t have to worry about money, so that it wouldn’t inhibit creativity,” Shukert said.
“But part of creativity is making things great within the financial constraints you’ve got. And you do have to park cars.”
Student Charles Weak of Omaha, whose design shows river water flowing into the eastern edge of downtown, said the site’s eventual developers will use their own plans, but the students’ work may prompt thinking about “sustainable riverfront practices.”
Andersen, the architect/teacher, said that for the students, the project was a chance to learn about large-site, urban architecture.
For Omaha, she said, “It’s a start.”
The Missouri River would move directly into downtown, as far west as 10th Street, in Charles Weak’s plan, shown with three cuts in the riverbank plus a large river beach at the south end of the property. “As the river ebbs and flows, it starts to shape those areas,” said Weak, from Omaha. “You put something there so the river can have a say, and the fish and other animal life and plants will find ways to be there.” The site will slope enough to prevent flood damage. “Flooding is really good for rivers,” he said. “The Missouri River floods a lot, but we dam it a lot.” He integrates the river into the development, adds a grocery store or a cafe in the little-used Gene Leahy Mall and extends parts of the street grid to Eighth Street.
Most plans call for the lagoon to be filled in, but Josh Puppe didn’t want the expensive earthwork and made only a slight change in the shape. His plan calls for two “circuits.” One mostly uses existing parkland trails around the lagoon for running, walking and conversing, and the other provides places where small-business owners and entrepreneurs can meet with people from Omaha’s largest companies. Three residential towers — the tallest about 25 stories — would rise over three-story buildings with storefronts on street level and offices above. Puppe, from Brookings, South Dakota, said the land to the east might be developed later to reach the river, but it’s not economical to try that now.
Omaha’s Old Market would be joined by Jeremy Kubitz’s Nuevo Market, with a water connection to the Iowa riverbank. Homes and a business district would lead to a series of docks and piers on both sides of the river. Water taxis could glide people back and forth, like the ferries to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Kubitz, from Lincoln, envisions fishing spots and parkland on both banks, allowing visitors and residents to engage with the river. His ground-level scene shows retail shops on the Omaha side. The street is designed for low-speed auto traffic, pedestrians and a bicycle lane. “That’s like the main thing: how to take people from the Old Market area and provide something for them to do with the river.”
Based partly on the Utopian ideas of the 1960s and partly on Google’s new headquarters, the vision of Lincolnite William Pokojski features a glass-faceted tube-like structure, patterned after a geodesic dome, to enclose offices, residences, green spaces, markets and mixed-use buildings in a year-round protective membrane. Residences form a central spine, with six branches spreading over the landscape and connecting the riverfront with downtown. “It’s meant to kind of hug the river on the east, to open up the west side for people from the Old Market and to integrate the area,” he said. “It becomes a recognizable neighborhood, a unique and dynamic place to live. It’s basically doable, but it’s more theoretical.”
With a new library, a recreation center, sports fields and homes for 4,000 people, Kalee Boehler’s plan would emphasize civic programs to create “a city inside the city, to bring people in for shared experiences and start to repopulate the area,” said Boehler, from Fort Collins, Colorado. “It’s been so heavily influenced by office use.” A raised boardwalk would follow the riverfront, possibly over the existing railroad tracks. The street grid would extend east to Eighth Street with three-story buildings for shops and restaurants, and residences above. New residences to the south would be seven or eight stories tall. The W. Dale Clark Library at 15th Street would give way to a new office building for the 1,200 ConAgrans remaining in Omaha.
Downtown’s “event-centered culture” draws crowds but leaves major venues empty most days. Adam Heier’s NFL stadium would be ringed by residences, shops and offices. An aquatic center near the ballpark would host year-round activities and U.S. Swim Trials in Olympic years. The Gene Leahy Mall would become a transit center, mostly for buses. Heier, from Kenesaw in south-central Nebraska, envisions “mat-housing” — large-scale, high-density modules organized on a grid. He has no inside information about an NFL team moving to Omaha (“I wish”), and if he had time to re-draw it, the stadium would be a horseshoe with the open end facing the river. “It’s re-thinking those large-scale venues and how they might start to give back to the city.”
Howard Street Mall
The Howard Street pedestrian mall, from the Old Market to a riverside plaza, would allow buses but not cars and have north-south cross streets. Mixed-use buildings would begin at 10th Street, giving way to offices for Omaha’s 1,200 remaining ConAgrans and then street markets with rooftop gardens and garage-door-style walls. On the south, parkland and housing with courtyards would connect new residents with people from the adjacent Little Italy neighborhood. The markets and other businesses would offer groceries, clothes and other necessities, like the city centers in Europe. “Living downtown’s not really convenient,” said Hilary Wiese, who is from Omaha. “There’s not a lot of amenities, and that makes it difficult to live down there.”
Downtown Omaha residents are largely empty-nesters or young professionals who are single or married with no children. Anne McManis of Lincoln would convert an existing ConAgra building into an Omaha Public Schools K-8 magnet school and construct a new neighborhood south of the school. Families could remain in long-term downtown housing rather than seek suburban neighborhoods and schools. The Old Market would extend to the east, with offices and mixed-use buildings north of the school. A hotel would face the river, and a boardwalk would follow along the riverbank to Lewis & Clark Landing to the north. People could use transit service to travel north, south, east and west, and ConAgra would retain offices at the site.