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by Bradley Bereitschaft
Assistant Professor, Department of Geography/Geology
University of Nebraska Omaha

2013-04-21_11-18-26_715I witnessed a tragedy last week.

Beautiful, decades-old trees lobbed off at their bases, the shade, protection, and quiet elegance they have bestowed upon the people of Dundee lost forever.

Unbelievably, this travesty was executed upon our landscape in the name of pedestrianism. The irony is palpable.

I consider myself an environmentalist, but I am no tree hugger; my concern lies primarily with human welfare. But our health and well-being – indeed, our very survival – is inextricably linked to the complex, interconnected multitude of natural systems we call the environment.

While cutting down a few trees won’t threaten our survival, the act leaves a beloved neighborhood needlessly devoid of one of its greatest assets. The fact is, trees – large, mature trees in particular – are important for very practical reasons.

First, trees along the street help to shelter pedestrians, both from the hot summer sun and the rush of automotive traffic. It is not inaccurate to say that trees literally save lives; they provide among the most attractive and robust barriers to curb-jumpers known to man.

Perhaps just as important, trees allow pedestrians to feel safe. This encourages residents, like me, to stroll along the neighborhood’s sidewalks, sometimes for considerable distances, rather than driving.  Trees practically manufacture pedestrians.

Second, trees add tremendously to the aesthetic quality of a place, and ultimately to the value of its real estate. Sure, younger trees and other shrubbery can provide greenery, but large, older trees also confer a sense of permanence and grace that cannot be manufactured nor easily replaced.

During my travels both domestic and abroad, I’ve noted time and again that one of the most universal attributes of lively, thriving pedestrian-oriented communities is the presence of mature street trees, be they silver maples or red oaks.

The loss of the trees is unfortunate enough, but even more infuriating and insulting is what is slated to take their place: parking spaces.

Let me be blunt: Dundee does not need more parking spaces. Few places in Omaha do.

Although I usually walk to Blue Line Coffee, Dundee Dell, and other neighborhood favorites, I have occasionally had to arrive by car.

Only once have I failed to secure a parking space immediately along Underwood Street. And what did I do to overcome such a dire predicament? I parked a mere block away along one of the residential side-streets. My 300-foot walk was a pleasant one, thanks in large part to the magnificent old trees lining the street.

While I encourage people from all over to come enjoy our (once) very attractive, pedestrian neighborhood, the fact is that most local businesses have done very well catering to local residents.

And this is as it should be. Before zoning codes needlessly segregated perfectly complimentary land uses, such as houses and small retail businesses, it was common to have a neighborhood bar, a neighborhood grocer, and neighborhood café all within easy walking distance.

While this “traditional,” mostly pre-war, neighborhood layout has begun to make a comeback, we also continue to build endless tracts of monotonous, auto-centric suburbs, while at the same time undermining the walkability of our most cherished, human-oriented urban landscapes.

There is no doubt that the Dundee Streetscape Improvement Plan will make it easier to find a parking space. Yet, sadly, this misguided attempt to accommodate more visitors will inevitably undermine the very pedestrian-oriented environment they have come to Dundee to enjoy.

Erastus Benson

Erastus Benson

by Ken Mayer

Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me, over lunch, if I thought the city would ever have a light rail system. Before I could answer, we heard a shout from across the dining room to the effect of “You bet we will!” It was the voice of Omaha’s irrepressible former Mayor Hal Daub.

In 2003, the light rail proposal was defeated by a single vote before the city council.

In many ways, the history of Omaha has been a history of transportation. Edward Creighton and promoter George Francis Train were largely responsible for the city landing the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. By 1872, the Union Pacific had opened the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River to Omaha.

Meanwhile, in 1867, Ezra Millard, Andrew Hanscom and Augustus Kountze formed the Omaha Horse Railway Company to provide service in the city. By the late 1870s, the line had five miles of track and 495,000 passengers annually. The city even boasted a cable car between 1884 and 1895. An electric streetcar system was built by Erastus Benson between Omaha and Benson specifically to promote that suburb’s development.

I had a bit of a flashback to Benson’s development tactic the other day as I listened to Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham speak at a meeting of Downtown Omaha Inc.

Cunningham, as a kid, frequented downtown, as I did. Most Saturdays, my friend and I would board the #8 bus for a day of shopping and dining in the Central Business District. We frequented such elegant bistros as the Woolworth’s lunch counter or the Virginia Café. We spent hours in Brandeis or Keiser’s book store and, weather permitting, walked across the Douglas Street Bridge to World Radio for whatever electronic gizmos we needed.

But I digress. Cunningham reported that there are currently about a thousand new housing units planned or under construction in downtown. This adds to about a thousand now online and a step toward the target of some 5,700 called for in the master plan.

Of course, a city planning director has a whole city to think about, and one of Cunningham’s notion’s that struck me as particularly interesting was the virtual expansion of the Central Business District to the west.

This could be accomplished by what the planners now refer to as “Transit Oriented Development.” It seems quite similar to what Erastus Benson was up to over 100 years ago. Benson knew he couldn’t develop his 900 acres of farmland, nine miles out of what was then Omaha, if people had no way to get there.

Today, the situation is reversed. Over the last few years, the places we live and work and play have been developed. They just need to be connected.

Cunningham spoke about a study under way to look at the feasibility of connecting the dots,so to speak. The nodes could comprise downtown, Midtown Crossing, the Med Center, UNO, Aksarben Village and the Crossroads.

This seems to me to be a great way to connect and expand the old urbanism of downtown to the new urbanism of neighborhoods to the west.

Note as well that the word “transportation” is being used. As much as I love riding a train, thinking only in terms of the romance of light rail may be shortsighted. One of the most often cited and classic business mistakes was committed when the railroads saw themselves strictly as rail carriers, not as transportation companies.

A system of transportation connecting the nodes would have to accommodate all transportation modes. That means pedestrians, bicycles, buses, trains and yes, even cars would all have to coexist safely in the corridors.

And while we are at it, why not throw communication into the mix? I’d be much more likely to board a bus if I knew my tablet could access a Wi-Fi network during the entire trip. Even if I’m on my bike, getting weather updates, movie times or where the best snacks are would make the trip much more fun.

We have opportunities as a city to leap forward in many respects by utilizing proven technology and big picture thinking. It’s nice to see that some of the bureaucrats get it.

Ken Mayer’s monthly column, The Public Space, appears on the Omaha by Design web site.

Dr. Bradley Bereitschaft

Dr. Bradley Bereitschaft

Bradley Bereitschaft, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, moved to Omaha six months ago. His research interests include human-environmental interactions, urban climate and sustainability, and the environmental impacts of urbanization.

In the January 2013 issue of Prairie Fire, he takes a newcomer’s look at downtown and the riverfront and offers his thoughts on achieving urban success.

A Newcomer’s Thoughts on Omaha’s Urban Landscape

What do you think? Let us know – leave your comments here.

From the pen (or keyboard) of Richard Florida:

“Density is a key factor in both the growth of cities, the happiness of cities, and the wealth of nations. And cities and regions where density is more concentrated near their urban cores — appear to gain the biggest economic advantage.”

What do you think, Omaha? Read more here, then weigh in.

A new look that fits the context of the downtown neighborhood.

The towering golden arches are gone. In their place is an attractive monument sign emblazoned with the world-famous “M.” The tasteful brick eatery is built to the street at the property’s corner, creating a pleasant sense of space for those who walk, pedal or drive by. The width of the sidewalks encourages their use, the neatly manicured landscaping provides a green respite from the bustle of the intersection, and a generous outdoor seating area encourages customers to linger for a moment before returning to their schedules.

Welcome to the new McDonald’s at 24th and Cuming, a working example of how Omaha’s Urban Design Element is changing the face of the city’s built environment for the better.

In the summer of 2007, when the Omaha City Council adopted a groundbreaking package of regulations designed to bring the Urban Design Element’s recommendations to life, local examples of what these code changes and additions looked like when executed were hard to come by. Today, some five years later, that’s changing, says Jed Moulton, manager of urban design for the city’s planning department. “Understanding the new requirements took a little coaching for local developers unfamiliar with these types of requirements, however, many corporate developers working nationally were well versed in such standards and adapted easily,” he said.

At 24th and Cuming – after close coordination between the planning department and the corporate offices of McDonald’s, the existing McDonald’s was demolished last spring to make way for the chain’s new “café-style” prototype featuring contemporary décor, muted lighting, flat screen monitors and more.

While these changes were in the works for the inside, Omaha’s urban design standards called for upgrades to the restaurant’s exterior and surrounding property, Moulton said.

The build-to/set-back guidelines ensured that the store was placed on the property in a manner that created a consistent street yard featuring a sidewalk of sufficient size and a landscaped plot that separated the sidewalk from the street. Shade trees now line the property in both directions.

The old drive-through lane, which previously circled around the building, is now located behind the building in the parking lot. In the old days, the single lane could only stack three cars at a time, leading to traffic snafus during peak dining times. The two new drive-through lanes, which passersby don’t have to look at while making their way up and down Cuming Street, can stack up to 16 vehicles.

The ground-level transparency guidelines ensured that a certain percentage of the building façade was transparent. As a result, a series of glass windows and doors allow passersby to see activity within the restaurant instead of a solid mass of wall.

Access for delivery vehicles proved to be a real challenge for the development team, as the site is much smaller than the typical McDonald’s prototype, Moulton said. An innovative solution was developed to create a special access driveway used only by delivery trucks. They now enter the site by driving over specially reinforced curbs and sidewalk areas. Removable bollards restrict use of the driveway when it’s not in use by delivery vehicles.

Because the back end of the building faces 24th Street, the planning department urged the McDonald’s architects to design it as though it were the front of the building. And, instead of stacking dumpsters behind the restaurant, they became part of its internal structure and thus out of the public’s line of sight.

The final touch – a monument sign similar to the one at 24th and Lake has been erected on the McDonald’s corner, designating the entrance to the historic N. 24th Street district.

A July 13 Omaha World-Herald article quotes Fay Hobley, who owns the 24th and Cuming McDonald’s, as saying the redesign has been good for business. “We are doing quite a bit more business now,” she said. “We can accommodate more, food-wise and facility-wise.”

For more information about the Urban Design Element, visit http://www.omahabydesign.org/projects/urban-design-element/. For more information about the urban design division of the city’s planning department, visit http://www.cityofomaha.org/planning/urbanplanning/sections/urban-design.

Editor’s Note: David Levy, a partner at Baird Holm, serves as chair of the Omaha by Design Advisory Committee. Curt Simon, executive director at Metro, challenged committee members to try riding the bus. If you’d like to submit a post for the density project, contact Omaha by Design.

by David Levy

Curt Simon offered a free bus pass to anybody willing to use it. I took him up on it, but it took me nearly a month to use it because of difficulty due to needing a car during the day and linked trips. But recently, I had a day with only one meeting out of the office, and I could ride with a colleague to that. So I decided to take up Curt’s challenge.

planning my trip

I used Metro’s website to plan my trip. It was very easy. You type in the addresses at each end, the time and day of your trip, and voila. It uses Google Maps, so the interface is very familiar.

my trip to work

Like a rookie, I left home at 7:05 for a 7:20 bus. The walk to my stop only took three minutes. It was a beautiful morning and an enjoyable walk.

I arrived at the bus stop at 7:08. Contrary to the stereotype of buses never showing up, here comes my No. 2 (granted, it was the one prior to the one I was planning on taking, but it was right on time).

I realized, however, that I was on the wrong side of 54th Street, so I hurried across. There was one other person at the bus stop when I arrived.

There were about 12 people on the bus at that point. The driver immediately recognized that I had no idea what I was doing with the pass, and he was very helpful. The bus was warm, clean and comfortable.

From 54th and Dodge, we headed east. A few stops later, we paused near the Medical Center for a couple of minutes, presumably to let the schedule catch up to us.

After our pause, we made our way back to Dodge and resumed the trip eastbound. Looking around, I noticed about 20 people on the bus. It looked like some high school kids, many people going to work and a few with suitcases, perhaps heading to the airport. I heard at least one foreign language as well.

Near Midtown Crossing, I noticed the bus stops in the right lane of Dodge and wondered about turnouts in some key locations such as that. The bus shelter there was very nice, however.

After about 10 stops and 16 minutes, we arrived at 19th and Douglas. I disembarked and headed for my office. But first, I stopped at a restaurant, which I would not have done had I been in my car. Although not good for my waistline, this demonstrates that riding transit can be good for Omaha’s economy in many ways.

my trip home

It felt like my days working in San Francisco – checking the bus schedule as I finished up work, anticipating catching that bus home. I left my office about 4:20 (hey, it was Friday after all!) and headed for 18th and Dodge. I waited about 10 minutes (my fault, not Metro’s) for another clean, comfortable bus. This bus also had about 12 people on it. The route was about the same, although we seemed to stop a bit more frequently than we had in the morning. Another 16 minutes, and I was at my stop. Another nice three-minute walk, and I was home.

In reflecting on my ride, one thing that struck me was that I noticed things I have never noticed before, despite passing by hundreds of times. This included houses in my own neighborhood, the Modern Arts Midtown and the vast openness that is Douglas east of the S curve.

Overall, I give high marks to Metro. The service was prompt and quick, the buses were clean and comfortable. The trip was easy and enjoyable. I hope to ride the bus more, but I use my car quite a bit during the work day. If I can find days where I do not need it, however, I will seriously consider taking the bus.

Jerry Reimer on a public art piece in the neighborhood.

Jerry Reimer and Scott Semrad build places for people to live. They also build neighborhoods by adhering to a shared set of core values – be a good neighbor, take chaos to calm, treat the property like you live in it, do what you say you’re going to do, don’t forget the difficulties of the little guy who doesn’t have many resources.

Their company, Urban Village Development, is the recipient of Omaha by Design’s 2012 Neighborhood Leaf. Presented annually, the award recognizes an individual, organization or business that has worked to preserve and enhance the metropolitan area’s residential neighborhoods. It was presented at the Aug. 15 meeting of the Omaha by Design Advisory Committee.

In the fall of 2007, Reimer and Semrad were introduced to each other by a real estate professional who thought the two would make good partners. They founded Midtown Properties LLC in 2008 and developed the current Urban Village brand in 2009. Reimer said their approach to development can be summed up in a single sentence – “We will not own anything that we would not live in ourselves.”

Today, Urban Village Development is a collection of single-family homes, townhomes and apartment units in an area bordered roughly by California Street on the north, Pacific Street on the south, Park Avenue on the east and 38th Street on the west. “We thought the area had great jobs but that the quality of housing didn’t align with these jobs, thus forcing people to commute,” Reimer said.

The duo began with apartments, places like The Art Decos and The Barnard Flats on Park Avenue. These buildings, once grand in appearance and rich in architectural detail, had been allowed to deteriorate over time into hot spots for unwanted activity. The Urban Village rehabilitation approach focuses on maintaining the original building’s integrity yet adding modern amenities and finishes – large closets, Internet hookup, stainless steel appliances – that make it appealing to young professionals and others interested in an urban living experience.

Their latest effort is The Portlands, a series of three-bedroom, three bathroom townhomes on Park Avenue that opened June 30. The completion of this project brings Urban Village Development’s presence in midtown Omaha to about 360 units in about 25 buildings. “We feel, think and try to act more like a neighbor than a developer, and the neighborhood supports and appreciates the work we are doing,” Reimer said.

The company has worked with a local convenience store to expand its food offerings to attract the new residents Urban Village projects are bringing to the neighborhood. Its staff is also quick to dispel any misconceptions people may have about the neighborhoods they work in. “Some people in Omaha often confuse low quality housing and diversity with danger – we don’t find the area dangerous and enjoy the diversity,” Reimer said.

For more information about Urban Village Development, visit www.uvomaha.com.

Omaha by Design columnist Ken Mayer looks at both sides of the density coin in the August installment of The Public Space.

“As I’ve watched our city change for the better over the last decade, I continue to appreciate the notion of density,” he writes. “Not just the number of people per square mile, although that’s a common and important way to measure density, but as a perception that we have about space and place.”

Read it here.

This is becoming a familiar sight across the Omaha metro.

It’s 102 degrees in Omaha at the time of this posting, and many are hoping the forecast for rain on Wednesday comes to fruition.

In a July 19 blog post, Kaid Benfield explores the relationship between sprawl and drought, suggesting that smart growth can help lessen the impact of the latter. Benfield is the director of sustainable communities at the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. He writes:

“Now I’m not naive enough to claim that the way we have built suburbs and cities over the last several decades is a proximate cause of drought, but sprawling land use can exacerbate some of its impacts, at least in two ways. First, the large-lot residential development characteristic of sprawl uses significantly more water than do neighborhoods built to a more walkable scale, contributing to water shortages. The second way in which suburban sprawl exacerbates the impacts of drought is by spreading more pavement around watersheds, sending billions of gallons of rainwater into streams and rivers as polluted runoff, rather than into the soil to replenish groundwater.”

Read the entire post here.

Agree? Disagree? Post your thoughts.

First you need good rules, then you need to enforce them.

Next American City recently interviewed professor and author Emily Talen about her latest effort, “City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form.” The Q&A touches on strategies for facilitating diversity, how bad design discourages mixed-use development, the “American fixation” on controlling use over form and the emergence of form-based codes. Read it here.

How does Omaha rate on these topics? Post your thoughts here.