Kiewit Corp.’s request to vacate a block of Burt Street in north downtown drew opposition Wednesday from neighborhood business people, residents and bicycling and pedestrian advocates.
Several people urged the Omaha Planning Board to oppose shutting down Burt Street from 16th to 17th Streets, as Kiewit proposes to do as part of the next phase of its Builders District redevelopment. Plans call for apartment buildings on the site, just west of Kiewit’s under-construction new headquarters.
The speakers at a Planning Board public hearing praised Kiewit’s investment in the area and its redevelopment, but pleaded to keep the connection open as vital to transportation and important to the neighborhood.
They also expressed concern that vacating another block of Burt Street, which runs parallel to the wider, faster, more heavily traveled Cuming Street, could lead to closing more of Burt Street.
Jason Kulbel is co-owner of the north-downtown-pioneering Slowdown music club and related development.
“I don’t think closing a street is really a good idea ever, especially in a downtown area that’s developing and becoming better all the time,” Kulbel said. “Obviously, this (Kiewit’s development) is going to add so much to it, but I don’t feel that closing the street is necessary in order to make that happen.”
Kulbel said he saw “the writing on that wall” and expects the city to OK vacating the block of Burt, but has concerns beyond that.
“What I worry about is Burt becoming closed all the way down from Creighton basically to 16th Street,” he said.
Many bike commuters and recreational cyclists use Burt and 16th Streets, stretches of which have bike lanes, to travel in and out of downtown Omaha. Kulbel and others said it’s also an important internal neighborhood street and alternative to Cuming Street.
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Julie Harris, executive director of Bike Walk Nebraska, said Burt Street from downtown west toward Benson is the most heavily traveled bike route in Omaha, according to counts by the city and through the activity-tracking app Strava.
“Maintaining that connection through for bikes and pedestrians is crucial, and we hope that the developer can work with the city to make sure that happens,” Harris said.
A Kiewit representative, Noddle Cos. Vice President Ted Zetzman, said Kiewit is committed to maintaining access through the area for cyclists and pedestrians, but believes there may be better routes than the affected block of Burt Street.
The Planning Board voted 7-0 to recommend that the City Council approve a plat of the site that includes vacating Burt Street from 16th to 17th Street — but requires Kiewit “to provide dedicated public bicycle and pedestrian connectivity though the vacated area of Burt Street.” That condition was recommended by the Omaha Planning Department staff.
The discussion is likely to continue as the plans progress to the Omaha City Council, and the redevelopment continues in the evolving north downtown area, including Creighton’s expanded campus.
Zetzman noted that Burt Street doesn’t go beyond 16th Street now. He said people on foot and bikes could get through the area another way, perhaps on Mike Fahey Street, a block south.
He said the developers wanted the Burt Street access requirement removed so that they could have flexibility in where to locate the biking and walking access.
Planning Board members were listening.
“Right now, 16th Street is kind of the connection to either go north or south. What’s the drawback of that being 17th Street?” Planning Board Member Patrick Morris asked Harris.
“I don’t know that there is one necessarily,” Harris said, noting that 16th Street is currently a truck route. “At any rate, having the connections and not having to go way out of the way is the most important thing.”
In the end, the board voted to make sure that connection remained by backing the plan with the Planning Department’s recommendations intact.