Archives for category: Neighborhoods

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.

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.

Trugs in production from Emerging Terrain and partners.

Omahans are starting to get the hang of this density thing. Two projects, each led by different groups, signal the beginning of this shift in thinking – Omaha B-cycle and Trug: Leavenworth.

Last week, Omaha by Design presented its 2012 Civic Leaf to the two groups responsible for introducing Omaha B-cycle to the community – Live Well Omaha and the Community Bike Project Omaha. The city’s first large-scale municipal bike-sharing system has become part of the midtown area’s civic fabric.

Five stations connect Aksarben Village, one of Omaha’s new mixed use developments, with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, its neighbor to the north. During its first seven months of operation, 426 members took a total of 1,437 trips while burning 288,228 calories and resulting in a 6,845 lb. carbon offset. The two groups intend to add 100 additional bikes and 20 stations to Omaha’s system within the next year.

On May 24 from 4:00 to 6:00pm, the Greater Omaha Chamber, Emerging Terrain, the City of Omaha and stakeholders from the Park East and Columbus Park neighborhoods will host a kickoff party for Trug: Leavenworth. The seasonal project, which is bringing uniquely designed planters and seating units to Leavenworth Street, is designed to calm traffic and create lively, welcoming spaces for local businesses and residents.

Throughout the summer, businesses and community organizations will be teaming up to provide weekly activities in and around the trugs. A trug, if you’re wondering, is defined as a shallow, usually oval gardening basket made with wide strips of wood.

Try them both in the coming months, and take a few moments to examine the effect they’re having on the local neighborhood.