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A streetcar, new skyscraper, and relocated library: How Omaha got here

Posted at 7:51 PM, May 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-17 15:14:20-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — The Omaha City Council will be voting on Tuesday on a major redevelopment plan that will change the landscape of downtown and midtown.

This includes a land swap that will put the site of the W. Dale Clark Library in Mutual of Omaha’s hands and give the city vacant land on 14th and Dodge. It also requires the city to make a good faith effort to build a streetcar, among other items.

It's a major step in the process of Mutual of Omaha going downtown and for a streetcar to be constructed.

In February, the Omaha City Council voted to remove the W. Dale Clark Library. This set the table for the Mutual of Omaha move.

What's happened so far?

  • 1998: Hal Daub pushed for a ‘light rail’ through Omaha, the plan ultimately failed.
  • 2016: Mayor Jean Stothert pointed to the city's 2009 Master Plan as reasoning for moving the downtown library.
  • Spring of 2017: A streetcar became a major part of the mayoral campaign, with Stothert aiming to put it to a public vote because taxes would be raised.
  • Spring of 2021: Stothert reiterated that the public would need to weigh in if a streetcar were to be built due to taxes.
  • September of 2021: Rumors circulate that the city aims to privatize the library system. Those rumors proved untrue and Stothert squashed them.
  • October of 2021: The city held library listening sessions where the majority of those in attendance said they wanted to keep the downtown library intact.
  • November of 2021: Mayor Stothert announces plans to move the downtown library to the Old Market and use the land for private development. Subject to city council approval.
  • January of 2022: Mayor Stothert announces in a large press conference that Mutual of Omaha will relocate to the W. Dale Clark Library site and a streetcar would be going down Farnam Street. Stothert says the streetcar enables Mutual of Omaha to go downtown.
  • February of 2022: Omaha City Council votes to move W. Dale Clark Library to Old Market. Thus opening up space for Mutual of Omaha.
  • March of 2022: Omaha City Council approves consulting fees to review the streetcar financing plan. Also, sets up Omaha Streetcar Authority.
  • May of 2022: Omaha Streetcar Authority meets for the first time. The board consists of three members of the Mayor’s cabinet, three members of Metro and Developer Jay Noddle, who the Chamber of Commerce chose to be on the board.

Concerns about transparency

For a variety of reasons the W. Dale Clark Library, Mutual of Omaha downtown relocation and the new streetcar going on Farnam Street were linked together.

For example: If the library never moved then Mutual couldn’t take their spot downtown. And, Mayor Stothert says putting in a streetcar is a major catalyst for Mutual of Omaha’s desire to move downtown.

But some Omahans say they feel left out of the process, saying press conferences announcing the library’s relocation and another announcing the developments came before a council vote. Mayor Stothert said in the January press conference nothing is a done deal unless the city council approves it.

The Omaha City Council ultimately approved the downtown library move on a 4-3 vote. They later approved aspects of the streetcar system, as well.

Tuesday they’ll vote on a major redevelopment plan that reiterates an effort to build a streetcar, tax-increment financing for the Mutual of Omaha tower and a land swap.

Last week in the public hearing for the redevelopment plan fewer than a dozen people came before the council. But nearly all told the council they didn't feel like this process was transparent.

"You want to know why people are so angry and frustrated with this process. People don't like surprises unless they're wrapped in a box with a bow on it and you should write that down,” said testifier Kimara Snipes, a former OPS Board member.

Liz Veazey, Board Chair of Mode Shift Omaha, is one of many in the community who has mixed feelings. She likes the idea of a streetcar.

"By seeing more people walking around and just being a nicer more exciting area for people to be in. Probably the cars will slow down right here on Farnam street because they'll be a streetcar in the street and more people walking around,” said Veazey.

But she echoes others who believe there was a lack of transparency.

"I did not realize that we actually, that it was going to be proposed as a thing and that it was going to be connected to the library. I mean I think there was zero public engagement and then the mayor just said this was happening,” said Veazey.

The transparency issue, specifically on the library, also upset city councilmembers Vinny Palermo and Juanita Johnson.

Palermo told 3 News Now he was as upset as anybody with how fast the library decision happened. He voted against moving it along with Johnson, who represents downtown, as well as Councilmember Danny Begley.

Palermo now says he feels more connected at this stage of the project and he and Johnson are now saying we have to move on.

"I would like to remind everyone that the vote regarding the move of the library was made several months ago,” said Johnson last week at the council meeting. "But it did happen two months ago. And now today what's before us is where do we go from here.”

On Monday, the city got a step closer to adding a streetcar by holding an inaugural public meeting for the Omaha Streetcar Authority. It will oversee the design, implementation and operation of the streetcar.

The meeting didn't take long and Chairman Jay Noddle said while being on a recently created board is new for everyone, they'll keep things open.

"So this is a bit new and we may. I don't think we'll fall down. But we may stub our toe a little bit along the way here. I don't think we’ll do anything that results in someone being concerned that we are not being transparent and open,” said Noddle.

'Tradeoffs': Expediency v. Public Engagement

There are “trade-offs” between expediency and cities engaging with the public, said Craig Maher, the director of the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Public Administration.

The library relocation, streetcar, and new Mutual of Omaha headquarters “Have fallen together into place for good, bad, however you want to perceive it,” Maher said. “But it seems as if things have moved a lot quicker than one would have expected for something at the scale in which we're facing.”

On the one hand, Maher said, in an era where trust in authority is very low, “A lot of local governments are doing a lot more … trying to get the public to participate in and comment on some of these big fiscal decisions,” he said.

But on the other hand, Maher said, “It's time-consuming. It can produce a lot of conflict … It's very difficult to come to some uniform acceptance of what some major development is going to look like.”

“I think this was more about an opportunity came and there was a quick response to it,” Maher said. “And now the challenge is going to be over, if the council approves it, then getting public buy-in as that project moves forward.”

Omaha, he said, stands out for investment by “major players,” which would include Mutual of Omaha. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The first streetcar meeting

The first meeting of the Omaha Streetcar Authority on Monday was uneventful. It lasted about 15 minutes before going into a closed session.

The board that is down the road, will make decisions on the design, implementation and operation of Omaha's new streetcar. Monday, Omaha engineering firm HDR confirmed a completion target date of 2026.

Chairman Noddle, the Greater Omaha Chamber’s appointee, says the board's process will be open to the public.

Other members include Steve Curtis, Dave Fanslau, and Bob Stubbe, members of Stothert's cabinet, and Lauren Cencic, William Clingman, and Edith Simpson, who are members of Metro Transit leadership.

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