September 1, 2006
Great Plains Urbanism
The conservative, pragmatic Midwestern city of Omaha, Nebraska, institutes one of the country’s most progressive sets of urban-design standards.
The turning point for Omaha came in 2003 when Wal-Mart and Home Depot snapped up a large green lot next to an old power plant in the southwestern part of town to build the kind of standard big-box strip mall that local communities have been decrying for nearly two generations. The area had been zoned for industrial use, but the city’s planning code didn’t contain anything to prevent the land from being developed for retail. “The whole community went up in arms and said, ‘This would be just terrible; how can you let this happen?’” says Steve Jensen, Omaha’s planning director. “And we explained, ‘We don’t have any power to stop it because of the way the code was written.’”
With the usual foresight of city planning departments—recorded in decades of unread reports, ignored land-use studies, and initiatives voted down by the city council—Jensen and his predecessors had long advocated design standards for commercial developments. But in Omaha regulation is still somewhat a dirty word, and elected leaders had always resisted placing limits on private property for the sake of the public good. Within two years of the Wal-Mart episode, however, a series of initiatives by business leaders, the mayor’s office, and community organizations converged to produce a sort of perfect storm of appreciation for the importance of design and public space in Omaha. A comprehensive set of urban-design standards are being codified into law later this year. Along with new downtown buildings by First National Bank, Union Pacific, and the Omaha World-Herald, and a 2005 performing-arts center by Polshek Partnership Architects, the new guidelines are on the verge of creating a cultural identity for the largely nondescript business-minded Midwestern city of 400,000 that rises out of the plains on the edge of the Missouri and Platt rivers. If successfully passed into law, they could turn Omaha into a model of progressive urban design with far-reaching consequences not only for the downtown area but also the suburban fringes.
Much of the groundwork for Omaha’s urban-design plan was somewhat naively put in place by the Omaha Community Foundation, which started working on a vision for the city in 1999. The organization began by hiring Ronnie Brooks, a consultant from Minnesota, to help conceive projects that would improve the city’s image. “As clearly as we could explain it, we told her we wanted a Neiman Marcus catalog for donations—projects that range from $10,000 to $20 million to make this a better city,” says Del Weber, then president of the foundation. “After about three months she came back and said, ‘If that’s what you want we could do that, but what would best serve you is to give you some criteria for building a great city.’”
The criteria Brooks suggested—which dealt with integrating immigrants, developing a regional plan, creating an identity for the city, and making Omaha attractive and fun—was a bit too conceptual, but it got them thinking. “This is how elementary it all was,” Weber says of their attempt to absorb the information. “We were saying, ‘Why don’t we start on a two-decade project to build public fountains that will be a destination not only for Omahans but for people all around the country? That idea resonated with everybody, but then someone said, ‘Well, but it’s more than fountains; how do you build great public spaces?’”
It was one of those “aha!” moments, says Connie Spellman, then vice president of education for the chamber of commerce. “I thought public space was a park, and you planted a flower or a tree. I had no idea what the scope of public space really was.” In 2002 the foundation asked Spellman to spearhead Omaha by Design, a nonprofit set up to focus their efforts, and brought in Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces to help. “We introduced this initiative that talked about the components of a great space: an image people identify with, access, connection, activity, and sociability,” she says. “We wanted neighborhoods to think about their spaces differently; it wasn’t just how it looked but how it was used. We were getting them to look at their own individual spaces to find out what they would like rather than having the city say, ‘This is what you should have.’”
The document produced through the Omaha by Design initiative exploits a nearly forgotten line in the city charter by calling for an “Urban Design Element” to be incorporated in the master plan. With the help of Jonathan Barnett, of Philadelphia-based Wallace Roberts & Todd, the final draft was written so that its 73 urban-design recommendations could be readily adopted, and he’s currently assisting with the effort to get them mandated as law. One of the most comprehensive provisions of its kind, the Urban Design Element of the Omaha Master Plan takes advantage of a Nebraska state law that allows the city to annex surrounding suburbs as they develop; it encompasses everything from the landscaping of street corners, the design of important civic sites, and streetlamp choices available for neighborhoods to regional development, protection of watersheds, and the creation of a citywide trail system.
Suddenly it seems like everyone in Omaha has the design bug. “Omaha has long been known as a city of serious-minded hardworking businesspeople,” Weber says. “The downside is that there was a neglect of the environment and how our buildings looked. But when a few businesspeople affiliated with the foundation decided to make a commitment to downtown, it became a catalyst. Our self-esteem has improved; we don’t feel like we have to take any kind of business coming into town throwing up anything they want.”
Outsiders still draw a blank when it comes to the image of Omaha, as evidenced by the recent uproar over the city’s share of Homeland Security funding. The headquarters of the United States Strategic Command—which controls the country’s nuclear weapons, space, and surveillance systems—is located to the south, and the city is also home to ConAgra, one of the world’s biggest food companies; Mutual of Omaha, a Fortune 500 insurance company; Warren Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, and his company Berkshire Hathaway; and the Union Pacific railroad headquarters.
But it’s the promise of increased cultural recognition that seems to excite community and business leaders most. “Corporations were realizing that Omaha didn’t have the energy that a lot of young workers were looking for,” Jensen says. “They’re saying, ‘It’s important to have a city that’s interesting and active—and a little edgy.’” That’s something community leaders appreciate about Saddle Creek Records, the label started by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes—which moved into one of the last meatpacking warehouses in the Jobbers Canyon district, most of which were demolished in 1988 to make way for a ConAgra campus—even if they’re not exactly fans of the music. “We’ve kind of become the capital of indie rock,” Weber says proudly. “I told my granddaughter, ‘I saw him on the Letterman Show, and that music doesn’t grab me very much.’ She said, ‘Grandpa, he’s our generation’s Bob Dylan.’” “He’s very angry,” Spellman says, and giggles.