Omaha’s north downtown is good, but it could be great, a panel of national experts told city officials this week.

It’s a matter of holding development to a standard of “world-class” rather than “it’ll do,” the visitors said.

“If you’re going to build something, build it to be spectacular,” former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy said Thursday, as the panel presented its findings.

The group was in town as part of the Daniel Rose Fellowship, a yearlong program run by the national Rose Center for Public Leadership. During the fellowship, officials from four cities receive professional development and leadership training. They also learn about other cities’ economic development efforts.

Mayor Jean Stothert and several other Omaha city officials are about a third of the way through this year’s fellowship. As part of the program, the mayor selects a land-use challenge to explore. Experts from other cities visit to study the issue and make recommendations.

The Urban Land Institute, one of the groups that oversees the Rose Center, previously visited the Omaha area to conduct a similar study about possible development along the Missouri River.

Stothert said she chose the north downtown area to be studied this time because that dovetails well with the riverfront study. And, she has said, she sees north downtown as a prime area for development.

“This is time for big thinking and ‘what if’ ideas and developing a vision,” she said Thursday.

The panel gave its presentation at Film Streams to city officials, business leaders and other interested parties.

The experts said they were impressed with the north downtown area and with Omaha as a whole. And they offered specific ways the city can elevate the area they studied, from Riverfront Drive to 17th Street and from Capitol Avenue to Grace Street.

Specifically, the panel recommended better connections between that area and nearby attractions such as the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, the Old Market and Creighton University.

Overall, the panelists said, north downtown needs a “shared vision.”

“What is the north downtown vision?” asked Kate Collignon, a managing partner at an economic development consulting group in New York City. “What is the brand that can be developed here?”

The group left some “homework” for the mayor and the community: convene a task force on the area, with Stothert as co-chairwoman.

Other suggestions for short-term action included:

» Develop a plan for fully programming TD Ameritrade Park and the CenturyLink Center.

» Organize around the arts and trades district north of Nicholas Street.

» Develop a parking lot directly west of the CenturyLink Center into a mixed-use center that contains businesses, restaurants, entertainment and housing. That should be the center of the north downtown area, they said.

» Establish an event to be held in the area that would draw from the Creighton campus as well as from commercial developments.

» Connect Mike Fahey Street to the riverfront area and the pedestrian bridge.

Murphy, the former Pittsburgh mayor, said the bridge is one of the best he’s seen, but added: “It’s a bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere.”

One longer-term focus should be parking, said John Hodgson, a developer based in Sacramento, California.

North downtown has lots of parking, he said, “but maybe not in the right places.”

Stothert said she would think about the group’s proposals and added that she is already moving forward with some of the suggestions from the previous riverfront study.

“We certainly have the talent in the city to get these things done,” she said.

The panelists encouraged Stothert to take charge of the process, saying the proposals require leadership and effort.

“At the end of the day, it’s always about political will,” said Murphy.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1084, roseann.moring@owh.com

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