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Redefining downtown: Gene Leahy Mall changed Omaha once. What will happen this time?

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Redefining downtown: Gene Leahy Mall changed Omaha once. What will happen this time?
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Marty Shukert spent many of his teenage days grinding meat and loading boxes in a gritty part of downtown Omaha called Lower Douglas.

Business got done, even if the setting wasn’t so glamorous. Shukert, now 71, recalls the area that included his family’s butcher shop as a labyrinth of taverns, flophouses, supply stores and assorted trades.

“If you look at it from the point of view of the corporate sector that wants things to be shiny and new, it was not by any means shiny and new,” he recalled.

The city’s future planning director couldn’t have known at the time, but the area would become Central Park Mall — the backbone of a “return to the river” movement that set the stage for generations of downtown development.

Marty Shukert (web)

Marty Shukert in 1982.

Starting in 1975, nearly six square blocks of vintage buildings fell to make way for a sunken park that was viewed as salvation for a then-dying downtown. Soon Omaha boosters had a picture-postcard image to promote of grassy slopes, curving pathways and a lagoon that reflected the skyscrapers behind it.

Later renamed Gene Leahy Mall, the park also sparked millions of dollars of new investment around its edges — along with additional demolition of existing buildings.

And those developments, in turn, encouraged construction of still more downtown offices, arts facilities, hotels and apartments.

In fact, it’s reasonable to wonder whether many of the major downtown changes of the past five decades — for better or worse — owe at least something to the mall’s creation.

Main photo of downtown mall (web)

Downtown Omaha's signature park, then known as the Central Park Mall, stretches west between 10th and 14th Streets in this 1984 photo. The meandering lagoon was a major feature of the the sunken park.

Without the mall, it’s not clear when Omaha would have replaced railyards with the Heartland of America Park, or created riverfront plazas and office buildings where a lead smelting plant and scrap metal yard once sat.

Without that early boost of urban revitalization, Omaha might have been slower to build a convention center and arena and baseball stadium on the north edge of downtown — moves that spawned new hotels and restaurants and put Omaha on a path to ably host crowded conventions and high-profile sporting events.

Then again, without the mall there may have been less impetus in the late 1980s to tear down a historic warehouse district to make way for the Conagra headquarters campus.

Like the Conagra project, the mall itself provoked some anger and controversy.

And also like the Conagra campus, which is being reimagined after the Fortune 500 company moved its headquarters to Chicago, the mall hasn’t turned out to be a perfect or enduring success.

In recent years, a private sector-led group concluded that the original mall and connected parks closer to the river had lost their crowd-pleasing zest.

They wanted fresh oomph and new approaches to attract younger generations to the area and its businesses. So they stepped in with a nearly $400 million effort to recharge the 72 acres of downtown Omaha parks and add a new science museum on the riverfront.

It aims to be a spectacular makeover of urban Omaha’s public spaces, opening up the riverfront like never before and giving people more reasons to be downtown. And the project all starts with redoing those first blocks that were demolished in the 1970s to create the mall.

Which means that once again, old Lower Douglas has become ground zero for redefining downtown.

Omaha’s urban park changed the city once. What will happen this time?

* * *

At this key moment for Omaha’s downtown, The World Herald is partnering with History Nebraska, which conducted interviews with 20 major players in business, philanthropy and government who influenced or watched some of the most significant redevelopment efforts of the past five decades. Those people, along with others contacted by The World-Herald, provide rare perspectives and help tell the story of how downtown evolved.

History Nebraska logo (web)

This story was published in partnership with History Nebraska.

Much traces back to a crude sketch penciled around 1970 by the city’s first planning director. Alden Aust envisioned Omaha returning to its river town roots with a “Marina City” and fresh features such as the linear park stretching to the Missouri River.

The sketch (web)

Five decades ago, then-City Planning Director Alden Aust drew this sketch of a reimagined downtown Omaha. Some parts of it became reality.

The mini town on a cove never would materialize; other parts came piecemeal, if at all.

But a gregarious Mayor Gene Leahy latched on to the “return to the river” theme as a way to counter downtown’s diminishing dominance as a retail and office center in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The decline had come rather rapidly with suburban sprawl, recalled Brad Ashford, a former congressman whose family had a popular clothing store downtown. Shoppers bailed for newer places like Crossroads and Westroads Malls built closer to new residential neighborhoods.

Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, previously at the Peter Kiewit Foundation, said of the prevailing attitude: “You had to build new in order to be considered contemporary and ‘with it’ and appealing to people.”

Metro areas across the country were turning to new tourist, entertainment and cultural development to keep downtowns thriving. That trend already had started to play out in Omaha in the privately funded Old Market.

Leahy, in launching Omaha’s full-on response, tapped an unsuspecting bank executive to help lead what would become a 600-person revitalization committee.

Aust and Leahy in 1995 (web)

Alden Aust, left, and Gene Leahy at the Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha, October 1995.

Michael Yanney, then at Omaha National Bank, chuckled as he recalled going to ask Leahy for help with a parking garage for his downtown workers who felt unsafe going to their cars. Instead, Yanney wound up with the unpaid riverfront chairman job. He has no regrets about taking on that task.

“We were in a mess,” recalled Yanney, who later founded Burlington Capital Group. “We had very poor development going on; we had a really terrible downtown.”

The Yanney-led group produced a seminal 1973 report pitching the Central Park Mall as the cornerstone of downtown revival. The hope was that residents and businesses would be pulled to grand public facilities. It also meant ousting some 100 property owners and 50 parcels between Douglas, Farnam, Eighth and 14th Streets to carve out the park oriented toward the river.

Some still harbor hard feelings about that loss. Says Ashford: “You wiped the soul out of downtown.”

One legal challenge gained national attention because the property owner suing City Hall was the father of then-Mayor Ed Zorinsky, who had followed Leahy in office.

Other controversy came when a pricey bridge needed major fixes before it even opened. Delays came when Mayor Mike Boyle shifted federal mall funds to North and South Omaha, following a new federal focus on inner-city neighborhoods.

In the end, it took two decades and more than $30 million in mostly federal funds to finish the mall project.

* * *

Business and arts leaders, meanwhile, answered the call to build around the project.

Northwestern Bell stepped up, Yanney said, with a 16-story office building near the end of the mall on Douglas Street that later became home to The World-Herald.

Peter Kiewit helped secure funds to put up a building across from the mall, on Farnam Street, that serves as a state office building and conference center. To clear the way for new development, a venerable office building was demolished.

Near both of those buildings, at the mall’s west end, was the new W. Dale Clark Library. Yanney said the main library came to be in part because The World-Herald and Omaha National Bank agreed to donate proceeds from life insurance policies each had on Clark, who had served on both boards.

Making way for the mall (web)

Construction of the Central Park Mall, as it was then known, required demolition of most buildings in the six blocks bounded by Farnam, Douglas, Eighth and 10th Streets. This 1974 aerial photo was taken before the buildings were razed. It also highlights the future site of the city’s W. Dale Clark Library at the west end of the mall.

According to World-Herald archives, in the decade after mall demolition began, 25 new buildings rose downtown or were in the construction pipeline. Another 32 were heavily rehabbed or about to be renovated.

Then later, in the late 1980s, the prospect of a Conagra headquarters campus brought even more development and an extension of the mall into a new park. A swath of about 110 acres between the mall and the Missouri River had been envisioned as the Marina City neighborhood, including warehouses converted into housing.

With Conagra interested in a downtown campus, civic leaders saw it as an opportunity to achieve at least a version of that long-discussed plan.

“So it got changed from 2,000 units of residential development with a marina to hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space with a lake and public park there instead,” Michael Wiese, previously of the Omaha Development Foundation, said in an interview before his death last year.

Demolition of the Jobbers Canyon historic warehouse district to make way for the low-rise global headquarters provoked an outcry heard nationally. It also spurred a burst of public spaces and entertainment facilities to the north.

Out went a polluting lead-smelting plant, an old rail repair yard and other traces of an industrial tract off-limits to the public.

In came the sprawling new city convention center arena and hotel, a bigger baseball stadium to host the College World Series — and a third new downtown public space, the Lewis & Clark Landing park.

In the 2000s, downtown also welcomed openings of First National Bank’s 45-story office tower, Union Pacific’s 19-story headquarters and the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Jay Noddle (web)

Jay Noddle

Underscoring the momentum at the time, developer Jay Noddle recalled taking a van full of Gallup executives to scout the location for a new headquarters. No one was interested in stopping at suburban sites; they asked to head downtown.

Eventually, Gallup chose the area around Lewis & Clark Landing for its 50-acre Gallup University that opened in 2003. Noddle recalled an exchange:

“I said, ‘What do you mean? This site is likely to be contaminated. It’s hard to do on the river.’

“They said, ‘No, we want to be right in the middle of the planes, the trains, the automobiles, the barges.’ ”

Gallup was joined along Riverfront Drive by a National Park Services regional campus and Riverfront Place condo complex.

The popular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in 2008 linked downtown with Council Bluffs’ Tom Hanafan park and amphitheater. Now emerging on the Iowa side is the River’s Edge residential and retail complex.

“Without the riverfront and the mall, we couldn’t have had this dramatic of a downtown renovation,” said longtime (now retired) city planner and preservationist Lynn Meyer.

* * *

Not all downtown mall-related development went according to plan.

Architect George Haecker, who led a mall study team, described the downtown revival as exciting and filled with big dreams and opportunities. The worry: “A lot of us were concerned about the demolition aspect.”

Standing out as “ridiculous,” he said, was the 1977 implosion of the WOW (Woodmen of the World) skyscraper southwest of 13th and Farnam streets.

Downtown aerial, looking east, 1980 (web)

By 1980, the mall’s west end had started to take shape while other parts remained under construction.

“You tear down a 20-story beautiful historic building and put in a brick box which wasn’t really even needed,” he said.

Mall supporters wanted a higher education campus and at various points envisioned a University of Nebraska at Omaha satellite at Jobbers Canyon and a four-block education hub south of the mall.

Instead, said Haecker, the city got the nondescript Peter Kiewit Conference Center, eventually “backfilled” mostly with state offices and other agencies.

He recalled that the surviving two structures inside the mall — the 1879 Burlington (which Yanney later bought) and the 1905 McKesson-Robbins (now Greenhouse apartments) — stayed in the plan despite repeated efforts by riverfront committee leaders to remove them.

“Finally they just stopped talking about it,” said Haecker, also founder of BVH Architecture. He said his team was adamant that the vintage multistory buildings remain; they helped the mall project blend into its environment better.

One building that didn’t blend: the five-story computer data center just south of the mall. The wall-like structure rose three decades ago as part of a US West Communications 1200 Landmark project built on land formerly occupied by a historic building and quaint retailers.

Noddle, the Omaha developer who helped with the project, says now that if he could turn back time, he’d steer the data center in a different direction or design.

“That’s sort of an albatross on the mall,” he said. “There isn’t much you can do with it because of the functions that happen inside.”

Indeed, Martin Janousek, an Omaha-based Leo A Daly design architect active in historic preservation, said the mall would have been better off without some of the new adjacent structures.

“The new buildings have no street level presence; there’s no pedestrian sense, there’s no storefronts … even the library sits in a moat,” he said.

As the mall itself is getting a complete overhaul, some of its neighbors are working to address such mistakes.

Old riverfront option 1 (color) (web)

The Asarco lead refinery on the riverfront in 1998, a year after it closed. Contaminated soil was wrapped in a liner and covered in clean dirt at the site, which became Lewis & Clark Landing.

For example, the 15-story Landmark office tower on the south perimeter of the mall just opened a new mall-facing boutique hotel and created public entertainment spots that spill onto outdoor areas.

Southeast of 10th and Farnam, meanwhile, parts of Conagra left idle when the food giant moved its corporate flag to Chicago in 2016 are to become a hub of retailers, residences and entertainment.

If Houston-based Hines Co. completes all of its proposed $500 million plan, the 23-acre “Mercantile” tract that abuts the city’s downtown parks would generate lots of public bustle — unlike its corporate predecessor.

* * *

When the $300 million “tri-park” work wraps up in 2023, boosters say downtown’s public spaces will have a whole new look.

Replacing the sunken mall will be street-level social gardens, art sculptures, a cascading pond, a pavilion for concerts.

A Farnam Street walkway will lead pedestrians on a blocks-long journey past the mall’s giant slides, past the Mercantile, through the revamped Heartland of America Park, and onto a signature pier overlooking the Missouri River.

Northward along the riverfront, Lewis & Clark Landing will be transformed into sand volleyball courts and a children’s park. Steps away will be the new $101 million Kiewit Luminarium science center.

Roger Dixon (web)

Roger Dixon

All should be well lit with around-the-clock security — making for smooth evening strolls from downtown’s most famous tourist destination, the Old Market, to the new $103 million Omaha Performing Arts music venue, says Roger Dixon of the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, which will manage The RiverFront parks system.

“It will bring everything together,” Dixon said.

Trees and other debris will be cleared for a riverfront view modern Omaha has never had, said MECA’s Katie Bassett.

A dedicated maintenance fund for the Omaha side of the riverfront project (of the 90 acres, about 72 is in downtown Omaha) is to be fueled by the city of Omaha and the private funder group led by Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Kiewit Corp., and Mogens Bay of Valmont Industries.

“We’re really trying to have that civic moment to celebrate being a riverfront city and being able to showcase the river,” said Bassett.

Of course the goal of business leaders who raised the funds is to attract more employers, workers and residents.

Noddle, who sits on both MECA and Chamber of Commerce boards, said downtown can expect more options for affordable housing, public transportation and development. The chamber’s soon-to-be-announced “urban core office” will be tasked with implementing growth strategies.

He and Dixon predict that vacant parcels around Leahy Mall won’t stay that way for long.

Lewis & Clark rendering (web)

A rendering shows what Lewis & Clark Landing will look like after a renovation. The park is being redesigned as part of a $300 million public-private overhaul of three downtown parks.

City officials envision the west end of the mall with new skyline-changing buildings with businesses and retailers that would complement the park. Kevin Andersen, Mayor Jean Stothert’s economic development aide, said the city is already getting proposals but has nothing firm yet.

“We won’t recognize this place in five to seven years,” Noddle said.

For Shukert, the sweeping changes join others he’s seen in a career spent in downtown offices — often helping to shape the decisions that have been made.

He’s not in charge of this latest redo, however, and he’s not a fan of lifting Leahy Mall to street-level hubbub. Still, he expects that other features such as the urban beach, boardwalk, pier and science museum should help bring downtown closer to the river.

That’s been a goal for civic leaders, government officials, city planners, developers and others for half a century.

“It all could really activate that riverfront,” Shukert said.

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This article originally ran on omaha.com.

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