Denver has its RiNo Art District. Artisan types in Massachusetts have Milk Row Creative Zone, and culture-craving Californians flock to San Diego’s Makers Quarter or The Barlow in Sebastopol.
Now Omaha is closer to establishing its own so-called “makers district” — a community with a creative bent and a focus on providing fledgling entrepreneurs a home to produce and sell goods and inventions.
Such millennial-heavy makers colonies prosper amid like-minded clusters that can promote networking and production opportunities, boosters say. The districts often feature reviving trades such as custom upholstery, furniture-making and metal works. Nationally, they’re known to help attract talent and stir up tourism.
While no name is set for Omaha’s proposed district, a draft report looks at what a 20-block area just north of TD Ameritrade Park could become — and dubs the site NEDO for North East Downtown Arts and Trades District.
“Make NEDO NeatO” says the 67-page conceptual document (most of it graphics) that city planners penned under the direction of Future Forward LLC, the Peter Kiewit Foundation-led investor group that’s spearheading the effort and also is a major property owner in that area.
“Our dream is to have space that is affordable for artisans, so they get a runway to launch their career,” said Future Forward spokeswoman Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, who is former director and now director emerita of the Kiewit Foundation.
Where better to grow such a community, she said, than an old industrial tract that brimmed in the past with round-the-clock light industry and trades activity.
“We want to embrace this forgotten part of our city that once was so integral,” she said.
Many details have yet to be hammered out, approved and financed.
Future Forward controls about 30 of the 80 acres in the target area, so for the full vision to take form, other major property owners including Union Pacific Railroad and Robert Grinnell of the Mastercraft Building would have to be on board.
And prior to any meaningful transformation, trucks that barrel through the area’s main artery would have to be rerouted, Ziegenbein said. An alternative path would require public infrastructure improvements, most likely financed by the city.
Still, Future Forward is laying groundwork for potential big change — saying that if done fully, the property value of that near-downtown pocket could increase by an estimated $250 million with new construction and rehabilitation projects.
The concept has gained enough interest that city planners and public works officials helped plot out the possibilities. The preliminary analysis shows gaps on which about 50 structures encompassing roughly 1.1 million square feet of building space could rise.
Future Forward is forming a nonprofit entity to begin raising dollars needed to pull it off, saying the money would go toward maintaining properties and adding amenities.
It’s preparing also to seek a special zoning district designation that would set standards for building and road design in the target area north of Cuming to Seward, generally between 16th and what would be 10th Street.
As envisioned, a mix of uses — from commercial to recreation — could fill vacant or underused parcels. For perspective, the focus area (which extends beyond what’s owned by Future Forward) outsizes Aksarben Village by several acres.
Ziegenbein sees the zone as more gritty, less polished and more job-intensive than the smaller Old Market area. She foresees it as a “funky” enough destination to draw a young crowd yet “not only a millennial thing.”
Jed Moulton, the city’s urban design manager who helped with the draft document, said there is a big push nationally to cultivate districts centering on the so-called creative class. “It’s not just art, it’s high-tech, it’s workspace for creative thinkers.”
To be sure, the area already has a nucleus of techies, artists and startups based largely at the popular Mastercraft, nearby Hot Shops Art Center and Co-Lab, all north of Cuming Street. Some stand-alone businesses, such as Drake Williams Steel, have operated for years in the area.
The idea is to build upon what is there, yet cultivate a more affordable environment for startup companies making a living in, say, letterpress paper products. There’s room, Ziegenbein said, for training programs for nearly forgotten trades such as hand engraving, ceramics and sculpturing. And for retail components including breweries and jewelers.
Physical design helps shape character and is a defining element of success for makers districts, Moulton said. Hence, the draft recommends having certain architectural styles and design rules for new structures.
Among proposed features:
» A new Indiana Street, north of Nicholas Street, with a wide median to be carved out westward from a central plaza, creating a four-block-long corridor considered critical to the evolution of the district. The median would provide open green space, about 60 feet wide, that could become a pop-up retail or arts fair common area.
» Indiana Street between 10th and 11th would function as the central plaza, a main public event and gathering place. An adjacent building could be an all-season space for trade fairs and concerts.
» A new section of 10th Street could be built northward from the central plaza and create a large triangular space for retail kiosks or a public garden or an orchard.
» Union Pacific tracks along the southeastern edge of the district would be maintained for railroad use and showcase events, and space around them could be considered as a “linear park” for bikes and pedestrians.
Calli Hite, director of corporate communications for U.P., said the company has been meeting with Future Forward representatives and believes its plan to be a “natural extension of the development that has already transformed north downtown.”
Hite did not say specifically how U.P. might advance the Future Forward vision, or whether it would consider selling its land to create the district.
“We appreciate these updates because any plans could impact the value of U.P. land, as well as its future,” she said in a statement. “We occasionally have suitors for our property, and we evaluate offers on their merit and ability to further enhance existing investments.”
Grinnell, who owns the Mastercraft and other property in the area, said he is generally supportive but wants to be sure parking problems aren’t created and that a potential new truck route doesn’t disturb his buildings.
“It just has to be done in a way that preserves what I’ve started down here,” he said.
Grinnell said he wasn’t included in preliminary discussions and has questions. While open-minded to the Future Forward objectives, he said, he doesn’t plan to change his business model. “I’m not going to run my tenants out of Mastercraft, cut the rates in half and fill it with makers.”
As for Future Forward’s part, it would request proposals from entities interested in building or rehabilitating parcels it owns.
The group’s effort to revive the area actually began quietly several years ago, and in 2011 it formed the legal entity to hold title to dilapidated and empty parcels in the economically distressed area. Its aim also was to protect public investment of nearby attractions including the ballpark and CenturyLink Center.
Ziegenbein recalls an earlier era when that industrial pocket was bustling and key to the city’s early reputation as a railroad and manufacturing center. Decay set in as railroads consolidated and as highway and urban renewal projects essentially cut it off from the rest of downtown.
To date, the group has invested about $7.5 million. Most of that was to buy the nearly 30 acres in and around the Mastercraft, but also for cleaning and structural improvements to the neighborhood.
Future Forward currently rents some of that space to startups including the Bench collaborative workshop and Reclaimed Enterprises, a custom woodworking and design business. The group now is at a point where it wants to step up activity. Ziegenbein emphasized that the rerouting of truck traffic away from the 11th Street heart is “paramount” to safety and further development.
City engineers have been to the site and have outlined four options including the current route, said Mayor Jean Stothert.
She said she’s supportive of the overall project and partnership with Future Forward, noting that a 2015 Urban Land Institute study recommended the arts and trade district to enhance north downtown. Stothert said the city is working with all property owners and companies that use the truck route to determine the best option.
“We’ll discuss financing when that decision is made,” she said.
As the area reactivates and meshes more with downtown, Future Forward foresees more job creation even farther north, into economically depressed areas of north Omaha. Ziegenbein sees it blending with its western neighbor, Creighton University, which she noted offers a built-in customer base.
A full-on approach to establishing a makers district, she added, could return the vibrancy of that bygone era and be home to another around-the-clock workforce of a more contemporary nature.
“There is a unique symmetry,” she said.