When HDR announced its first choice for a new global headquarters nearly a year ago, its leaders touted downtown skyline visibility, access to the airport, the city’s “vibrant core.”

Now that it has pulled the plug on that 11th and Dodge Streets site, the question becomes: Will the architecture and engineering giant try to find an alternative site with similar allure — or might it look farther west?

HDR leaders won’t give a hint on its options, other than to say that they’re not abandoning the pledge to build in Omaha. Their earlier plan called for a June construction start. And they face expiration on their current campus lease in January 2019.

Real estate and planning experts concur that HDR’s change of heart could deal a definite blow to downtown. But they say that nearby sites could still offer the urban flavor and contribute to the effort to revitalize older parts of the city.

“If it winds up around downtown, but not specifically on that site, it still could support central city development,” said Marty Shukert, a former city planning director — even if the site is in midtown.

One potential midtown site is at Aksarben Village near 67th and Center Streets. Noddle Companies, the lead developer of Aksarben, for a year has been marketing a tract that has room for 350,000 square feet of office and retail space, 1,500 parking stalls and 100 apartments.

In fact, a schematic architectural design already has been drawn up — by HDR.

Asked about HDR, Jay Noddle of Noddle Companies said: “We certainly hope that Aksarben Village will be a possibility for HDR.”

Another midtown site HDR previously looked at is a stretch being cleared by Mutual of Omaha east of Midtown Crossing. That site is ideal, Mutual officials have said, for a mixed-use development that includes a corporate headquarters.

“We’re hearing exactly what you’re hearing,” said Molly Skold, marketing and communications director for Midtown Crossing. “We’re not in direct conversations right at this second with HDR. But we would certainly welcome the opportunity to talk to HDR.”

Councilman Chris Jerram, whose district includes midtown and Aksarben areas, said he’s making the pitch to bring HDR to his district.

“I’m sure every developer in town is trying to make friends with HDR,” he said.

Not everyone has given up on a substitute downtown site, either.

But HDR Chairman and Chief Executive George Little said earlier, after the company had settled on 11th and Dodge Streets, that only one downtown Omaha spot fit its needs for a worldwide headquarters.

The company had planned to build a 16-story, $152 million complex on the land that sits between Dodge Street and Capitol Avenue, 11th and 12th Streets.

He said Thursday that since the project did not develop as originally proposed there, it was “no longer in the best interest of our employee owners and company to move downtown.”

Still, Mayor Jean Stothert on Friday suggested as a possible downtown replacement site a parking lot in north downtown operated by the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, known as Lot B.

Stothert called that lot, next to the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park, a “very viable location” for HDR. She said the company could take part of the site and leave the rest for mixed-use development.

The mayor is on a committee, chaired by Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. Chairman Emeritus Ken Stinson, that has been assembled to study the lot’s future.

MECA officials have said that they favor a height restriction, but Stothert suggested that a tall building on the side of the lot away from the ballpark might not obstruct baseball fans’ views.

Before HDR made its first selection, city officials said they had showed the company several downtown sites.

The company rejected at least one — the former Civic Auditorium, city officials said.

Other still-viable spots that would be eligible for tax-increment financing from the city sought earlier by HDR, Stothert said, are MECA’s Lot B and the grassy block north of Union Pacific.

Conversation about the next HDR site dominated side conversations at two different events Friday — the annual Commercial Real Estate Summit as well as Omaha By Design’s annual awards banquet.

Beyond downtown and midtown, speculation about possible HDR sites included west Omaha’s Boys Town land north of Millard North High School, and developing office parks along West Dodge Road.

“There are phenomenal second choices,” said Arun Agarwal of White Lotus Group, which is headquartered in midtown but has several developing sites, including an office park near 168th Street and West Dodge Road.

Van Deeb, a City Planning Board member who founded the former Deeb Realty, said he would not be surprised if HDR went to Aksarben or Boys Town. “I would be surprised if they continued interest in downtown.”

P.J. Morgan, a former mayor and owner of a real estate company, said he is on Team Downtown.

He said strong cities have a thriving downtown. More jobs lure retailers and residents. And, Morgan said, downtown’s gain of the 900-plus HDR employees would have picked up momentum slowed by the loss of ConAgra’s corporate headquarters.

Tom McLeay of Clarity Development said he also is rooting for an alternative site downtown, where he said a corporate headquarters would rev the evolution of 10th Street south of downtown.

“Don’t forget the ConAgra campus,” he said.

The ConAgra campus contains a few vacant plots available for construction near the riverfront. And part of the suburban campus could be at least partially emptied when ConAgra relocates its international headquarters to Chicago.

Stothert said ConAgra officials are scheduled to meet with her in the next few weeks.

Todd Heistand of NuStyle Development has redeveloped several downtown sites into trendy housing. He is among others who said the HDR situation highlights the need for mass transit options that would ease the need for expensive parking stalls.

Parking was an issue cited by HDR in its decision to scrap downtown.

“We won’t be having any more big development downtown until we get a street car because parking is always an issue,” Heistand said.

Jon Crane, of Boyd Jones Construction, said he chose to relocate his firm’s headquarters downtown in part because he believes the urban environment would be a recruiting tool.

Crane currently is transforming the old Burlington mail terminal at 950 S. 10th St. into a $25 million mixed-use facility. He said downtown urban development will never get to the “next level” without a different mindset on mass transit.

On an upbeat note, said Barry Zoob of Colliers International, HDR wants to stay in Omaha where it’s been based for a century.

Zoob said at the Summit conference that he believes HDR will announce the choice of a new location fairly soon.

“I would guess the decision is already made,” he said. “You don’t pull out of something without already knowing where you’re going.”

World-Herald staff writers Christopher Burbach and Janice Podsada contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1224, cindy.gonzalez@owh.com

* * *

Speculation: Where might HDR build?

» Aksarben Village

» Boys Town

» Civic Auditorium

» ConAgra campus

» Lanoha lot (old Union Pacific site)

» Midtown Crossing area

» MECA Parking Lot B

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