A conceptual design of Ralston’s Hinge project, with 72nd Street in the foreground. The Ralston Arena is at upper right. The green space at center is part of the city’s plan to encourage people to walk from the arena area to downtown. The city’s master plan also calls for modern urban housing.
Omahans have no shortage of fun, trendy districts in which to shop, live, dine and luxuriate.
There are the classics, like Benson and the Old Market. Some spots are relatively young and growing into their own, like Blackstone, Aksarben Village and the Millard Lumberyard.
Now Ralston wants a piece of the pie.
In the years since construction of the Ralston Arena in 2012, city leaders have been trying to figure out how to draw people from the arena and the area near 72nd and Q Streets into the city’s downtown, which resides southwest of there, along 77th Street.
Born of that desire came the Hinge project, a blueprint for transforming the area into an inviting entrance to the city while completing a major redevelopment of the downtown.
When the idea was first included in the city’s comprehensive plan in 2014, officials spoke of adding a lake, a park and mixed-use buildings that could house apartments, condos, restaurants, stores or bars. They talked of getting private developers on board who could create a vibrant, walkable space.
The Ralston City Council in November approved a master plan for the project — what Mayor Don Groesser called the “50,000-foot view” of what Ralston could look like years down the line.
The master plan, at 108 pages, is comprehensive. It addresses housing needs and the kinds of businesses Ralston is lacking. It lays out a vision for how the area between 72nd Street and the downtown could be built.
If the Hinge ultimately adheres to the master plan, it would create more than 460 new housing units, 1,000 new residents and about 160,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, according to city documents. By comparison, the Nebraska Crossing Outlets has about 400,000 square feet of retail space.
The master plan does not lay out a timeline for the project.
It’s too early for the project to have a set price tag, but Groesser said planners have tossed out $40 million to $50 million for the entire project, much of which would come from the private sector.
The biggest city expense would most likely be for the many green spaces sprinkled through the project’s conceptual designs. Those could cost upward of $5 million — another rough estimate, Groesser said.
Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates
Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.
One such imagined green space, in the plan called Gateway Park, would act as a natural welcome mat into the city. In the designs, planners have placed it off 72nd Street between Main and Burlington Streets.
Other amenities included in the designs, from 72nd all the way into downtown, include a small grocery store, pedestrian plazas, a food truck park and aesthetic street designs.
But Ralston doesn’t want to bite off more than it can chew.
When the Hinge was first being discussed, the city considered starting the redevelopment effort farther east, closer to 72nd Street and away from downtown. But that proved to be a challenge, partly because a handful of businesses closer to 72nd had no interest in selling their properties, Groesser said.
Instead, the city is starting closer to home, focusing first on the downtown area itself. As of early December, the city was in negotiations to sell a city-owned parking lot along Park Drive that was appraised at $100,000, according to Dave Forrest, Ralston's outgoing city administrator.
The parking lot could one day be developed into an apartment complex.
A study by engineering company HDR is underway to examine Ralston’s main downtown plaza, which meets at the intersection of five streets. The three-month study is expected to provide options for how the city could rework the heart of its downtown space.
City officials believe that if they can spur redevelopment downtown and slowly work east, they’ll prove to business owners, developers and other stakeholders that the project is working, Groesser said.
Then the city would use downtown redevelopment as a catalyst to keep the momentum going east toward 72nd Street and the Ralston Arena.
“I think if it really starts moving, the development community within Omaha will help us figure out how to make the thing happen,” Groesser said.
The timeline of the project is unclear. The HDR study on the five-point intersection could be done by February. The downtown apartments could break ground in April.
“Everything else is pretty much (up) in the air,” Groesser said.
The plan acknowledges that Ralston will face challenges in seeing its vast vision come together. Omaha’s other districts — Aksarben, Benson, etc. — benefit from being established. And those pockets have access to more young people than the Ralston area.
But Groesser said Ralston doesn’t need to be a carbon copy of other communities. As the project progresses, it can cater to the needs of Ralston.
City leaders stress that nothing in the master plan is final. As the city moves forward, new ideas and different designs could emerge and previous plans could be scrapped.
“We have a beautiful downtown,” Groesser said. “I think we have an opportunity to let it develop like it wants to develop.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the City of Ralston had sold a city-owned downtown parking lot. As of Dec. 2, the city was still in negotiations to sell the property.
Reece covers Sarpy County for The World-Herald. He's a born-and-raised Nebraskan and UNL grad who spent time in Oklahoma and Virginia before returning home. Follow him on Twitter @reecereports. Phone: 402-444-1127