Omaha’s Runaway Urban Development

Cities are fluid, shifting spaces. We are surrounded by the building materials and architectural styles of former ages, telling stories of the people who formed our communities. As part of the existing environment, they shape our lives and inform our understanding of our place the world. The city is made by minds and hands that came before us.

Contemporary efforts reveal our ideals and a vision of a future that we form. Our buildings, our public spaces, our roadways are legacies we plant for our enrichment and for utilization by people who come after us.

Perhaps I am overreaching when I use the word “we.” As citizens, you and I have no input in the development of our community. In recent weeks, the Omaha World-Herald has published stories about these urban development projects:

Major structural renovation of the sunken Gene Leahy Mall
City of Omaha’s commitment to an $8MM 400-stall parking structure
$156MM Streetcar project in midtown
Demolition of the Doubletree Hotel and reopening of 16th Street

Demolition of old Union Pacific headquarters, currently an empty lot

This list does not include the “missing teeth” of the demolished Civic Auditorium and Union Pacific headquarters, the ever-delayed Crossroads Mall redevelopment, the $1B+ development near 192nd and Dodge Streets, or the recent fight over spending $10MM in City funds to raze historic buildings for Omaha Performing Arts parking. Oh, and don’t forget the riverfront.

Currently, until a project reaches the hearing stage of a Planning Board meeting, there are no opportunities for citizen engagement. By that time, plans have been drawn and introduced for approval. Interested citizens and architects, transportation advocates, neighborhood groups, and any other people who want to discuss urban development topics are left out of the conversation.

This has been confirmed with the City of Omaha Planning Department. Our municipal government provides no public forums to discuss concepts in urban planning, national and global trends, successes and failures in other cities, how to use development to break multi-generational systems of poverty and urban decay, transportation needs, or 99 other topics. The built environment affects public health, public safety, and public life… without input from the public.

Omaha has a history of an imbalance of power when it comes to planning. A handful of architecture and construction companies — and the billionaires who run them — exert influence over the projects that ultimately enrich them. Different from other cities? Maybe not. But we deserve better.

The projects listed above are driven by the voices of the few and the wealthy without explanation or debate. Imagine the perspectives we miss from the many and the underprivileged. Imagine the wealth of civic engagement we miss as a result of secrecy. [An example of positive engagement: Gang of Five and Omaha Performing Arts.] When urbanism excludes the people, it does not serve the people. Citizens are not to be led but are to be engaged.

And it’s not only the current residents of our city. Like the buildings raised by previous generations, the spaces we make now will affect millions of residents and visitors. They are our stories to tell and our legacy to leave. Just as the city shapes our lives, we have a right to shape the city.

Nothing about us without us.