The Omaha Planning Board voted Wednesday to delay a decision for one month on real estate developer Jay Noddle’s controversial condos proposed for the historic Blackstone neighborhood.
The vote followed contentious testimony by Noddle and Blackstone Neighborhood Association neighbors, and came despite the developer’s initial demand that the board vote yes or no on Wednesday.
Also at the meeting, a legal dispute over part of the lot where the condominiums would be erected became public. That issue appears to have the potential to cause Noddle to scuttle the project.
In voting 6-0 to postpone a vote, board members said they hoped Noddle and Blackstone Neighborhood Association homeowners would use the delay to find a compromise. That appeared a lofty goal Wednesday. Noddle, noting that he had already made several changes, said he was willing only to alter building colors, not the size or style of his proposed $6 million, 15-condo building. But neighbors have major objections to the size, style and placement of the building.
Noddle proposes to erect the building at 501 S. 38th St., on the southeast corner of 38th Street and Dewey Avenue. It’s a historic neighborhood whose business district has undergone a reawakening. Many of the opponents to the project are people who bought and restored mansions and other historic homes in the area when Blackstone wasn’t so hip as it is now.
Noddle would demolish a home that neighbors described as a “wreck” and erect the condos in its place. They would sell for about $400,000 apiece, with sizes ranging from 1,100 square feet to 1,800 square feet.
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Noddle said the size and design of the building were appropriate for the neighborhood and would help fulfill important goals for Omaha. He noted that he is chairman of the Urban Core Committee, a group formed by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to study ways to step up development, housing and jobs in Omaha’s urban center.
He said his work on civic projects had sparked his personal interest in developing housing in the eastern half of Omaha. He framed the proposed building as a pioneering project in an effort to increase density and types of housing in the city’s core.
“One of the fundamental, overarching things we’ve learned is that how the core of the city works, how the core of the city goes, in large part has an impact on how the whole region works,” Noddle said. “In essence we want the core of our city to be vibrant, we want it to be safe, we want it to have great employment opportunities. Housing is very important if we want to continue to grow jobs in the core of our city.”
Noddle said many folks “believe this is about money.”
“But I can promise you that, while it’s important not to lose money on projects, what this is really about is to get things started, to set an example, and to show developers, property owners and our entire community that we can do a lot more in the core of our city, and we can do it in a well-thought-out, thorough and meaningful way.”
Scott Dobbe, executive director of Omaha By Design, backed the proposal. He said it would improve walkability, add population density, help with transportation options and increase diversity of housing choices in the area.
Dobbe, noting that there were buildings of varying ages, including apartments, in the area, said the proposed building would be high quality and contribute to the neighborhood.
“Generally we do ... support it because we think it achieves the broad community goals we’re after, while at the same time being true to its own time and place,” Dobbe said.
The neighbors’ objections were closer to home. They said they support the broad goals and welcome more dense housing, including condominiums, to the neighborhood. But they don’t like this proposal. Some 50 people sent letters opposing the project as proposed. The Blackstone Neighborhood Association passed a resolution against it.
Rhonda Stuberg, president of the neighborhood group, said the condo building would become the focal point of the corner of 38th and Dewey Avenue, detracting from the historic houses around it.
“If this isn’t all about money, why does it have to be such an obtrusive building in the middle of our neighborhood?” Stuberg said.
Curt Snodgrass, treasurer of the neighborhood group, said the developers “haven’t been willing to reduce the size of this building one inch. Its sheer size is what makes it inappropriate for the neighborhood. ... It would come clear out to the corner, no setbacks, unlike all the other homes on that block. It would completely wreck the look of the nicest corner of mansions in our neighborhood that’s left.”
An attorney for another neighbor raised a wrinkle. Attorney Steve Ranum said neighboring homeowner Ronald Banse is making a legal claim to a portion of the lot where the condos would be built. Banum said the Banse family has used and maintained a portion of the lot for many years, and claims to own that portion through adverse possession. That’s a legal doctrine under which someone can acquire another person’s land by intentionally using that person’s land in plain sight, without the owner’s permission.
Noddle said that’s a legal dispute between the Banses and the current owners of the property. Noddle said he has a contract to purchase the property, but added, “If in fact they are successful with an adverse possession action, I’m probably not going to buy the property.”
Planning Board Chairman Greg Rosenbaum told Noddle that the board wanted to see what the project would finally look like before making a recommendation to the City Council. Member Patrick Morris asked Noddle if he would be willing to accept a postponement until the board could “have a final idea of what it is that we’re voting on.”
“No,” Noddle said. “You gotta be up or down today. And if we’re done, we’re done.”
But Noddle later said, “In the spirit of community, we will accept a one-month layover. Not two months, and not three months. ... We will do our very best in the next 30 days, and we will be back to you next month. ... But next month I want you to vote, up or down.”