Over the years, most Omaha developers have not been innovators but rather calculated risk-takers. They have generally acted on their perception of the market, taken a chance and responded to demand.
For example, planners in Omaha and elsewhere have promoted the concept of mixed-use development, in contrast to highly “zoned” projects that had distinct and separated residential and commercial areas. An old friend and colleague once said something to the effect of “Omaha doesn’t have mixed-use developments because it doesn’t have mixed-use developers.” Here’s a dozen developers I’m familiar with; the list is somewhat personal and not comprehensive.
N.P. Dodge Company
This company, a well-known name in Omaha history, developed what was the city’s largest single residential development, Maple Village, during the 1950s. This gigantic community of largely single-family, middle-class homes built for baby boomers rarely gets the appreciation it deserves for design innovations — a great central greenway design with topography, parkways and boulevards, intelligent street connectedness and some level of use-mixing. It also managed to get local street access over I-680.
Bemis Land Company subdivided the Bemis Park neighborhood, which in many ways represented the first “designed” development in Omaha. Prior to that, most residential areas were “additions” of rectangular lots delineated on standard rectangular blocks. Bemis Park used the site’s topography, applying the design principles that Frederick Law Olmsted pioneered in Riverside, Illinois, which involved breaking the grid without creating discontinuities in the street network. Bemis Park is skillfully designed, and generations of residential developers and engineers have copied portions of it.
The Mercer Family
The patriarch of the family, Dr. Samuel D. Mercer, chief surgeon for the Union Pacific Railroad, reportedly founded an early hospital in Omaha and was a master developer and builder of streetcar lines. He developed the Mercer Park neighborhood (a continuation of Bemis Park, where he built his own home), areas around Hanscom Park and a number of streetcar lines, vestiges of which remain in service as bus lines. Later, his son acquired much of the real estate in the Old Market, and his grandson, Sam Mercer, had the vision in the 1960s to turn that assemblage of buildings into a mixed-use creative district. A certain amount of fighting city hall was involved. The Central Omaha Plan (1966) called for demolishing and redeveloping this district, keeping a couple of buildings for historical flavor. As I was quoted in Sam Mercer’s obituary, “Sam Mercer was the Old Market. No Sam Mercer, no Old Market.” His son, Mark, has continued this tradition.
He developed the City of Benson. He also developed the Benson Motor Railway, which introduced public transportation to northwest Omaha. Mayne Street, named after Clifton E. Mayne, one of the interests in the town’s steet railway, eventually became Maple Street. Benson, which was annexed by Omaha in 1917, has gone through several iterations and is again one of Omaha’s leading neighborhood hubs.
Metcalfe Development Company
Ted Metcalfe developed the Country Club district on the original site of the Omaha Country Club, following the tradition of thoughtful residential design pioneered by Bemis Park. Country Club also is notable for its unified residential architecture, which features consistent form but subtle details and innovations, such as the “House of Tomorrow” and Country Club Apartments, both designed by architect Reinholdt Hennig.
C.C. and J.E. George
These developers were responsible for developing Dundee, Fairacres and Happy Hollow. The layout of Happy Hollow Boulevard is an extraordinarily skillful design that uses topography to great advantage to create an internal character that maintains connections through its street and walkway network.
Seldin Development and its longtime president Ted Seldin understood market forces leading to westward expansion. The company acquired land along what was to become the West Center Road corridor, then developed the property largely during the 1960s and 1970s. West Center Road tends to be viewed as a continuous commercial strip, and there are aspects of its commercial development that might have been developed somewhat differently, had we known what we do today. But this long-term development defined patterns in southwest Omaha and established West Center Road as the sector’s major commercial destination. As with Maple Village, there are subtleties in its design that are sometimes not appreciated. These include internal connectivity within shopping centers; a connected greenway including a golf course, school site and drainageway; an excellent collector system that keeps local access off the arterial street; and integration of different housing types and land uses.
John Wiebe was the pioneer of shopping centers in Omaha. His early efforts during the 1950s included Hillcrest Mall in Ralston and the area’s first true regional center, The Center Mall. The Center, on a small site with difficult topography, is basically a multistory regional mall surrounded by a parking structure — an innovative and cutting-edge design on an urban site. Wiebe is best known as the developer of Westroads, then the behemoth of commercial projects that deeply affected Omahans’ shopping patterns.
Mutual of Omaha
Though Mutual is an insurance company, not a developer, it was the force behind two of Omaha’s most influential projects — Regency and Midtown Crossing. Regency was probably the first completely designed and horizontally integrated mixed-use project in Omaha, and it remains an excellent example of good development design.
Around Mutual’s Midtown headquarters site, the company had for years concentrated on building employee parking and expanding office facilities. While understandable from a corporate viewpoint, this tore into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood and created an evening wasteland along the Farnam corridor. During the 2000s, the company understood that a vital urban environment around its facilities was more important than an abundant supply of surface parking. In the teeth of the Great Recession, it built and supported Midtown Crossing, an enormous and unconventional project for Omaha that changed that part of the city. It also created the conditions for reinvestment projects such as the Blackstone District and helped cement the connection between Downtown, Mutual and UNMC.
Noddle Development Company
Noddle Development, under the leadership of Harlan Noddle, grew as a developer of shopping centers and retail boxes in towns and small cities in the Midwest and also in Omaha. But its breakout project was development of the former Rehnstrom farm at about 100th and Pacific Streets, which became One Pacific Place and remains, arguably, the most controversial rezoning action in the city’s history. This was also the first project that came into my office after I became planning director.
The project evolved from a large office park to a horizontally integrated mixed-use project. In addition to its design and use mix, it included for the first time a development agreement that capped the amount of office space and required at least a set number of residential units. After One Pacific Place, Harlan, his son Jay and the company focused on a different level of development, including Downtown’s Landmark Center with Betawest Properties and First National Business Park with First National Bank. I consider the First National Bank building one of the city’s best contemporary buildings. Noddle has since become highly identified with major New Urbanist developments such as Aksarben Village, Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, and the Boys Town Farm/DiMarco property west of 144th Street. Aksarben Village has had an enormous impact on how Omahans see development.
Holy Name Housing Corporation and Sister Marilyn Ross
Sister Marilyn Ross may be the first nun on a list of iconic developers. Holy Name Housing Corporation, the organization she led for decades before her recent retirement, began as a venture by two young parish priests at Holy Name Church (The Revs. Don Nereuther and Jerry Mullin) who had a social mission and believed the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood threatened the viability of the church.
They acquired abandoned houses on individual blocks, formed a small construction company to rehabilitate them and sold them to new homeowners. When they left Omaha, Sister Marilyn became HNHC’s executive director and took the nonprofit development corporation to new heights, building new single-family homes on vacant sites mostly in north Omaha but also in other areas, developing new projects and subdivisions on vacant sites (the intergenerational center on the St. Richard site, new ownership subdivisions on the old Immanuel Hospital and Fontenelle Home sites), and many other projects that have stabilized large areas of inner-city Omaha.
Omaha Economic Development Corporation and Al Goodwin
As a city staff member involved in embryonic neighborhood development efforts during the 1970s, Goodwin founded and directed OEDC. He was able to combine federal grants with private financing to move north Omaha projects forward when no one else could. Goodwin and his successor, Mike Maroney, accomplished the Kellom Heights redevelopment project north of Creighton and the redevelopment of the Logan-Fontenelle Homes public housing site with new owner-occupied housing. OEDC remains active on the North 24th Street corridor and created conditions that are making other redevelopment projects feasible.