Omaha’s streetcar discussions are back — with new, influential backers on board.
A group within the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce is taking a new look at the streetcar concept, even starting over examining why and how Omaha would even run a streetcar.
The chamber has formed a group called the Urban Core Committee to study ways to step up Omaha’s development, housing and jobs in its urban center. Part of that is looking at how to move people around the urban core, including a streetcar.
After Omaha’s earlier streetcar discussion quietly stalled, it now has an influential group of corporate and civic leaders, headed by longtime real estate developer Jay Noddle, studying the idea.
Noddle told The World-Herald that the group wants to develop a recommendation for the community based on a thoughtful, detailed examination.
Noddle said a streetcar system — he uses the term “urban circulator” — is an essential ingredient for future growth in Omaha’s core. But he stressed that an urban circulator is just a piece of the committee’s discussions, and not even as high of a priority as jobs and housing for Omaha’s urban core.
He said the economic development, jobs and housing growth in Omaha’s urban core will set the tone for the region for the next 25 years — and it’s important to find the best way to move people around that area. The chamber’s committee will try to tie all those issues together.
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To this point, Noddle said, Omaha’s streetcar discussions suffered from not being comprehensive enough.
“Nobody ever went and created the recipe,” he said. “They skipped ahead.”
Noddle has developed such projects as Aksarben Village, Gallup University Riverfront Campus and his current project, the Heartwood Preserve near Boys Town. He also serves as vice chairman on the board of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, operators of CHI Health Center Omaha, TD Ameritrade Park and the Riverfront Revitalization Project.
The development of a committee led by Noddle marks a significant shift in how Omaha is approaching the streetcar question.
To this point, Metro transit and the City of Omaha have been the lead groups studying the idea of the project, last estimated to cost $170 million to build. That likely meant waiting in a long line for federal funding to come through, or having the city commit significant money to start a streetcar. Proponents also pitched a way to fund the project by tapping into tax revenue from development drawn to a streetcar line.
But the streetcar idea has always drawn skepticism publicly, as people questioned whether the cost was worthwhile for a limited 3-mile service area from downtown to midtown. Mayor Jean Stothert has held that a public vote would be required to spend city tax dollars on the project — a tough sell when streetcar boosters were still just introducing the idea to the community.
Stothert, who is aware of the chamber committee, said she’s pleased the group has formed to look at Omaha’s urban core and she understands it will come up with a “total mobility plan” for the area. She said the committee was not initiated by her, but city staff members have been in dialogue with the group.
The mayor said she would have questions if a streetcar plan were presented to her, including a big question of how to fund operations and maintenance. She said her focus is on roads, and she has been floating the idea of issuing bonds to fund a long-term plan to catch up on street maintenance.
“The streetcar is not on my radar. I will tell you that,” Stothert said. “Fixing the roads is.”
In recent months, transportation issues have gained new prominence in the metro area as traffic congestion grows worse, street conditions deteriorate and younger workers express a desire to move around the city in different ways.
This summer, the Blueprint Nebraska economic development group proposed making Omaha a national model for “next-generation public transit.” Separate from its urban core group, the chamber started the ConnectGO initiative, which proposes to create a “bold” transportation plan for the Omaha metro area that considers streets, highways, transit, trails and all modes of transportation.
The Urban Core Committee is wrapped up in the chamber’s 2019 goals and its five-year economic development strategy.
Transportation and a streetcar now are being discussed as ways to boost the economy because Omaha needs to attract more workers and Omaha leaders want to help people in North and South Omaha get access to available jobs.
David Brown, the chamber’s president and CEO, acknowledged that mobility issues are one component of the committee’s focus, but he said it also is “working to enhance the vibrancy and economic strength of the region’s core.” In a statement, he said any recommendations made by that group on the topic will feed into the broader ConnectGO effort.
Brown said the chamber and its partners are “looking at mobility needs across all geographies and all modes of transportation, including within the urban core. We’re just getting the initiative underway and have not yet begun considering specific projects.”
As transportation issues have elevated, Modern Streetcar Advocates — which had become the main group trying to get people on board with the idea — has kept making the case for a streetcar in local shops, community meetings and online posts. The organization built up more than 2,000 supporters who believe in the idea.
Jay Lund, the organization’s main streetcar booster and a principal in Omaha’s GreenSlate Development, said in a statement that Modern Streetcar Advocates is incredibly excited about the chamber’s initiatives and will support them however it can, including by having continued conversations about why a streetcar is so important.
Lund, whose GreenSlate has been a developer and manager in the Blackstone District along a potential streetcar line, said the chamber’s efforts “can provide the resources and leadership on how we can finally build the streetcar.”
Mutual of Omaha’s real estate subsidiary remains interested in the idea.
Molly Skold, spokesperson for East Campus Realty, said the company definitely is interested in a streetcar if it’s right for Omaha. She characterized its potential involvement as a cheerleader on the sideline.
“If it’s good for Omaha, if Omaha felt like it’s something that is a viable, worthy initiative,” she said, “we’re all for it.”
Daniel Lawse, a Metro board member and chief century thinker for the sustainability firm Verdis Group, said it’s important to consider housing density in connection with transit upgrades. One reason streetcars don’t work well, he said, is because nearby housing doesn’t create the volume of passengers necessary to support the transit line.
“It’s refreshing that this conversation is at a place that they’re looking at it comprehensively,” he said.
In June, Verdis Group released a public opinion survey indicating that 73% of respondents were somewhat or very interested in using an urban circulator. The firm surveyed 8,500 people who work downtown or in midtown, including at First National Bank, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Mutual of Omaha.
That’s just part of Omaha’s continuing series of studies on the streetcar. By Modern Streetcar Advocates’ count, Omaha has conducted 30 studies on the topic over the last 15 years.
Noddle is prepared to study it more, saying he wants to make sure the committee looks at the issues thoroughly.
He said he understands that some streetcar supporters have an insatiable need to build a streetcar. But he said he wants to get Omaha’s civic, business and political leaders unanimously behind a recommendation.
As for funding, Noddle said it’s too early to know how that might work. But he said he could see the first phase of an urban core redevelopment funded with a “high percentage of private dollars.”
He said the discussions could take 12 months or longer.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”
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It was about 15 years ago that seeds were planted for an iconic western gateway to Omaha. City officials at the time were preparing a master plan for developing suburbia. Now the seeds have sprouted. Between the Avenue One project and the office parks planned by R&R Realty, an area about four times the size of Aksarben Village is to be transformed at 192nd Street and West Dodge Road. Read more
A former one-story furniture store that has been vacant for several years is to stretch up and out as J. Development plans to integrate a new five-story apartment building into the existing property. When done, the $17.8 million project at 119 N. 72nd St. will contain indoor parking, community and fitness rooms and 158 market-rate apartments ranging in rent from $800 to $1,100. Read more
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The Centerline apartment complex, a J. Development project on the 72nd Street corridor north of Spring Street, is open for business. Nearly 80 of the 162 units, at 7007 Oak St., are ready and other floors are opening in phases through November. Read more
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 and Woolworth Avenue in that it’s new construction targeting homeowners rather than renters. Read more
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As once happened for Florence, Benson, Irvington and a handful of other small towns, the buffer between Omaha and Bennington is disappearing. Families are flocking to the outskirts of town, building homes in brand new neighborhoods with brand new schools in the Bennington school district. READ MORE
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The midtown Omaha campus of the Atlas stands out not only for sheer size, but also its $108 million conversion from a sterile hospital. A mix of retail and residential residents have already started moving in. READ MORE
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After Eppley Airfield recorded its busiest month ever in May, airport officials are beginning the next stage of planning for future renovations and expansion. READ MORE
The century-old Blackstone Hotel, most recently used as an office building in midtown Omaha, is poised to be resurrected to its original use under a nearly $75 million plan by two Omaha developers. READ MORE
The Douglas County Board will consider using eminent domain to acquire a property near 18th and Howard Streets for its proposed $120 million juvenile justice center. Read more
The 130-year-old St. Agnes Catholic Church and related buildings appear headed for the same fate as a few other Omaha parishes in the past few years: The campus at 23rd and Q Streets has been sold to a developer who expects to replace it with rental housing. READ MORE.
A familiar Old Market warehouse — the 133-year-old Woolworth building — is now 44 residences. The homes were carved out of the top three floors of the five-story structure on the northeast corner of 12th and Howard Streets. READ MORE.
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A $13 million headquarters for OCI is set to rise northeast of 204th Street and West Maple Road. READ MORE.
A growing Omaha-based Baxter Auto Group is revving up with a new corporate headquarters to be built northwest of 168th Street and West Dodge Road, near three dealership structures the company currently has under construction. READ MORE.
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A company that builds senior living communities has staked out an 8-acre spot on Omaha’s sprawling West Farm development. The Avamere Family of Companies, based in the Portland, Oregon, area plans an $84 million project featuring a pair of upscale residential structures with independent senior living, assisted living and memory care units spanning 325,000 square feet. READ MORE.
The former Creighton University Medical Center is becoming the state's largest single structure of market-rate apartments, near 30th and Cuming. READ MORE.
Officials continue to move closer to developing Lot B, an 8-acre piece of downtown real estate near the CenturyLink Center. Plans calls for a $125 million mixed-use development with restaurants, stores, apartments, open spaces and possibly another hotel. READ MORE.
NuStyle Development is poised to convert another downtown Omaha building into housing — replacing much of the Wells Fargo Bank center at 1919 Douglas St. with about 200 apartments and indoor parking. READ MORE.
The 30 Metro residential and retail complex brings a five-story, $20 million investment to North 30th and Fort Streets. The building includes 110 apartments, 12,000 square feet of commercial bays — and the Icona, a sculpture that stands near the entrance to the 113,000-square-foot complex. READ MORE.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska plans to move its health clinic and administrative offices from South Omaha to the vacant former Infogroup headquarters campus near 84th and Q Streets. READ MORE.
Omaha's Intercultural Senior Center is building a 22,000-square-foot facility at 5545 Center St. Construction on the $6.2 million project is expected to be done by 2019. READ MORE.
Alvine Engineering is settling into a new home at 12th and Cass Streets, about four blocks north of the 127-year-old digs it had been in for three decades. The facility marks the first corporate headquarters to be constructed in that downtown area since 2013 when a $44 million, 130,500-square-foot facility at 13th Street and Capitol Avenue was built for grain-trader Gavilon. READ MORE.
Omaha’s movers and shakers, with more than half the funds pledged privately, are forging ahead with a $290 million proposal to breathe new life into the city’s downtown riverfront. A conceptual master plan calls for adding spacious lawns for events, a Farnam Street walking promenade that stretches past Eighth Street to the river, a ribbon-shaped rink for ice skating and rollerblading, a water plaza where kids can play and splash, and a dog park. READ MORE.
The Rohwer family is one of the last farm families on 204th Street, one of the final few trying to straddle the fuzzy line between this area’s rural past and suburban present. "My life is farming," said Alan Rohwer. "My life is this land." READ MORE.
Omaha-based Metonic Real Estate Solutions helped refine a project it thinks will target an unmet demand in the west Omaha area. Ravello 192, as it’s called, is planned as a sprawling 11-building town house development offering private entrances and garages for each of the 118 rental residences. READ MORE.
Rising southeast of 10th Street and Capitol Avenue is a six-story mostly residential structure with ground-floor commercial bays. Capitol Place, as the $27 million project is called, is the dream of two former city officials who are shedding a suburban lifestyle to help build Omaha’s downtown central business district. READ MORE.
Two heavy-hitter youth athletic organizations are teaming up to help build a $10 million Elkhorn facility set to sprawl across 135,000 square feet and host up to 400,000 visitors a year. READ MORE.
The century-old farm at 162nd and Fort Streets, which has evolved into mostly rental space for a landscaper, car fanciers and storage-seekers, is at risk. Omaha officials want the operations shut down, citing concerns with permits, zoning, life safety. READ MORE.
Urban Village Development is set to build 167 apartments on the site of the former Grace University administration and dorm structure at 1311 S. 9th St. READ MORE.