Gene Leahy Mall could close in just four months to make way for the sweeping plan to redo part of Omaha’s downtown and riverfront into more accessible and activity-filled public spaces.
The mall, between Douglas and Farnam Streets downtown, could be closed to the public starting in March, according to a construction schedule presented Thursday to the city’s Urban Design Review Board.
Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing, the other areas part of the project, wouldn’t close until mid-2020.
Nathan Elliott, a principal architect for OJB Landscape Architecture, a national company hired by donors, gave Thursday’s presentation. He emphasized that the timeline is tentative and could change as officials get deeper into the design process.
But one thing is sure, Elliott said. “I think this is going to be a turning point for downtown Omaha,” he said of the project.
Officials from the city and philanthropic and business communities announced a conceptual master plan for a 90-acre swath of downtown and the riverfront in June. Ken Stinson and Mogens Bay, two Omaha businessmen and board members of the nonprofit Heritage Services, are leading the effort.
The $290 million, mostly privately funded proposal calls for raising most of the sunken Gene Leahy Mall to street level and adding new amenities, such as trails, and activities like concerts and workout classes from roughly the marina near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge south to The Breakers apartment complex at Leavenworth Street.
Officials have said the transformation is needed because the current 90-acre space is underutilized due to poor accessibility and visibility.
The project is complex, with features like raising the grade so people can easily walk east past 8th Street and over the existing railroad line to better connect with the riverfront. It also includes an urban beach, an ice skating ribbon and various children’s play areas. The popular slides at the mall would remain.
The project would be mostly privately funded, with $50 million coming from the City of Omaha in the form of redevelopment bonds. The parks would remain public spaces owned by the city.
Under the plan, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority would oversee the project’s construction, operation, maintenance and activation. MECA and the city are still working to formalize an agreement that spells out their responsibilities. MECA also runs the city-owned CHI Health Center venue and TD Ameritrade Park downtown.
Elliott of OJB said the proposed schedule shows construction beginning first on the western end of Gene Leahy Mall. Dirt will need to be brought in to bring the mall to street level. The sidewalks around the mall would remain open to the public during construction, he said.
To date, Elliott said, Omaha-construction company Kiewit has been engaged in pre-construction work and has helped with the project’s schedule and estimating its cost. Kiewit will most likely be involved in its construction, he said. Stinson, one of the project’s leaders, is a chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc.
Thursday, the Urban Design Review Board accepted the presentation and asked for another update when the project gets further into the design phase.
The board helps review and sign off on publicly funded projects and makes recommendations to the city’s planning director. The board, which includes an architect and engineer, among other experts, is appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.
Board member Bob Peters, a former planning director for the City of Omaha, asked whether parts of the project would remain open during construction.
Elliott said the goal is for the construction and openings to be staggered. For example, work on Lewis & Clark Landing would start last, in June 2020, while the west part of Gene Leahy Mall is expected to reopen first, in April 2021.
That would leave about a year where none of the areas is open, as opposed to the entire area being closed for several years during the duration of construction.
Construction on the eastern portion is scheduled to conclude in September 2021, so people could enjoy the entire mall by fall. Lewis & Clark Landing would wrap up in March 2023, and Heartland of America Park would finish a year later.
Elliott said those dates could be sooner, depending on various approvals, including those from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Matthew Schoell-Schafer, a board member and landscape architect, said the design is beautiful. But he questioned whether downtown has the population to fill the area with people and activity.
Elliott said his firm’s experience — their work includes Houston’s Levy Park — shows that building accessible public space attracts people.
He said he expects daytime workers to use the space for lunch, and people to come to downtown in the evening for concerts. And he anticipates that more downtown residential projects in the works now will be online by the time the project starts wrapping up.
“People from Council Bluffs are going to want to come. People from west Omaha will want to come,” he said. “People from Lincoln will want to drive up and see what all the fuss is about.”