A committee of powerful Omahans is toying with the idea of filling the Gene Leahy Mall with shops and restaurants, making it like the popular Riverwalk in San Antonio.
Their vision also includes a riverfront bursting with attractions designed to draw people in year-round, such as a pavilion, sand volleyball courts and a rock climbing wall.
The group, which calls itself the Riverfront Revitalization Planning Committee, is headed by Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., and Valmont Chief Executive Officer Mogens Bay. It also includes several other business and city leaders from Omaha and Council Bluffs.
Stinson said the job of the committee, which has been meeting for months, is to “really put some meat on the bones” of plans to revitalize the city’s downtown green spaces.
The group has solicited bids from national experts to come up with a plan for the area from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to the Heartland of America Park and west through the mall. Its focus area also includes a wooded area north of the pedestrian bridge on the Council Bluffs side.
The committee’s work is building on a years-long discussion that has been taking place on both sides of the river about ways to develop the area and bring more people there. The consultant that the group chooses will be armed with years of studies and ideas for the riverfront area and will be tasked with coming up with a plan that can become a reality.
Nothing is set, including who would pay for the work or how much it would cost.
The committee has ties to the nonprofit Heritage Services, a group of Omaha business leaders with an interest in philanthropy. Heritage — whose board includes Stinson and Bay, as well as some of the other committee members — has been interested in the riverfront for more than a year.
Much of the recent interest sprang out of a 2014 report from a group of experts from the Urban Land Institute who suggested the city needs to plan big and small activities to bring people to the riverfront more regularly. The group also suggested the two cities work together and bring “high-quality, innovative design” to the area.
Since then, Omaha and Council Bluffs have been moving.
In Iowa, work is about to begin on a $100 million project led by Omaha developer Noddle Cos., said Mayor Matt Walsh.
That project will include office, retail and residential space, as well as entertainment spots, and bike and walking paths.
“I think it’s just a great time to talk about it and plan together as a community what we think our riverfront should look like, so we’ll get down there and activate that area,” Walsh said.
In Omaha, the Public Works Department is studying how it could extend Capitol Avenue to the riverfront, creating easier access to the area from downtown, said Mayor Jean Stothert.
Stothert said the city, with the help of U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, has obtained a waiver from the federal government that would allow for development on the Gene Leahy Mall. (The area was built with federal money that requires that the area remain green space.)
And the city commissioned a study from Omaha-based engineering firm Lamp Rynearson and Associates to detail development restrictions on the riverfront and offer possibilities for what could be done there.
“It’s a great space, and I think there’s a great opportunity down here,” said Terry Atkins, senior vice president of Lamp Rynearson.
There are two major limitations to development on the Nebraska side of the riverfront, the firm said.
One is the underground cavern of contaminated lead left behind by the Asarco lead-smelting plant and capped by the city. That means tall buildings are unlikely to appear on the riverfront.
The other restriction is the flood-prone Missouri River itself. The riverfront area that Lamp Rynearson studied is not part of the flood plain. But it does contain a long flood wall that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to be able to access and maintain.
Even so, the firm found, there is a lot of potential on the riverfront. It offered a concept for a 13-acre area between Lewis & Clark Landing and Interstate 480 that features volleyball, tennis, playgrounds, rock climbing and green space.
At the site of the now demolished Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, a 19,000-square-foot restaurant, would be a larger building that could include several shops or activities.
And Atkins said the concept would include filling in the area around the flood wall with dirt. Instead of walking through open spaces and running into a wall, people could walk up and over it without even knowing about the wall underneath.
The final version will almost certainly be different from Lamp Rynearson’s concept. The riverfront committee’s next step is to choose its own consultant, who will take those recommendations and other information about the riverfront and come up with a more specific proposal.
The Lamp Rynearson report doesn’t address the Gene Leahy Mall, but Omaha Parks Director Brook Bench said the park’s transformation would likely involve two tiers of shops and restaurants, one at street level and one by the water. He said it would be modeled after San Antonio’s popular Riverwalk district of shops and activities along the San Antonio River.
“It’s redoing the whole thing on a huge scale,” Bench said.
Stothert said the water would remain.
Steve Jensen, the city’s planning consultant and a former planning director who is also on the panel, said there have been discussions for years about bringing more activity to the mall area. He said the new committee is “looking at ways to update, activate and improve the park.”
He said the group also will look at the surrounding area, including the W. Dale Clark Library, which has been talked about as a potential site for development.
The mall — originally called Central Park Mall — and the downtown library were built as part of a 1970s push to revitalize Omaha’s downtown.
Omaha’s 2009 downtown master plan identified Gene Leahy Mall as “a major downtown feature that needed to be addressed.”
“Reasons included a lack of maintenance, a significant homeless presence and design limitations,” the plan said.
The plan suggested a new restaurant, pavilions and a bridge over the mall at 11th Street. It also suggested replacing the library with an office tower and moving the library elsewhere.
The timeline of the next steps depends on the consultant that the committee chooses. But the group hopes to have proposals back by the end of the month, Bench said. The City Council would likely be asked to approve any major decisions.
The takeaway, Atkins said, is that there are great possibilities for the riverfront.
“We can do something really cool and engaging down here, and it doesn’t have to be big buildings, and it doesn’t have to be some plan that’s overly expensive,” Atkins said. “There’s things we can do right now to re-engage the space.”