Updated: Oct 5, 2021
The southern edge of North Omaha is the key to attracting attention, capital and revenue
by Lynn Hinderaker, Growth Dynamix Consulting
1. North Omaha continues to struggle with poverty, homelessness, affordable housing, job creation, gang violence, early childhood care, stagnant business development and declining property values.
2. There are numerous task forces, committees and non profit groups in the area that strive to solve these problems; some succeed, but—visually-speaking—nothing significant has occurred for 25 years other than the construction of Seventy-Five North on 30th St. and a clean up effort on North 24th St. Meanwhile, developer Paul Smith has created Millwork Commons just north of downtown. It appears poised for growth as soon as the pandemic subsides. As that project (as well as Mastercraft and Hot Shops) evolves around Cuming Street, a new paradigm emerges:
“Going north is not a ‘bad’ thing, it’s a ‘good’ thing.”
3. Any urban planner knows: when property values fall and fall, eventually, the artists will take advantage of low costs by setting up shop. Then come the twenty-somethings. Both groups seek cheap rent and the freedom to ‘create.’ These two trend-setting groups can play a large role in the revitalization of North Omaha, particularly North 24th St.
4. However, the real catalysts for transformational change are two elements: A. The proximity of Creighton University: this proud institution is full of liberal youth that have no hang-ups about racism. Diversity is their mantra. They do have an interest in lifestyle outlets such as co-working lofts, restaurants, bars, yoga studios, boutiques, T-shirt shops, art galleries, coffee shops, CBD stores, bakeries, pizza shops, etc.
These kinds of places are not currently within walkable distance. But students will find them when they are only 100—200 yards away: just across Cuming Street.
B. Even more important is the increasing importance of Cuming Street: this street leads to the airport as well as the future of North Omaha; the key now is to begin the physical transformation of North Omaha not at 24th and Lake, but at a more practical-and-obvious area—24th and Cuming; this area can be commercially ‘fed’ with automotive traffic, bus traffic and student pedestrian traffic. It is the new downtown VORTEX.
5. This common-sense repositioning strategy turns the current thinking in North Omaha upside down. As the chairman of the largest business peer group in America (Vistage) once said, “You can work and work on problems that pull you down in many ways. They all beg for your attention. But even if you solve them all, you’re still back to square one. The real idea is not to solve problems, but to identify and pursue opportunities. That’s how you move things forward in a meaningful way.”
6. This courageous and foresighted statement brings us to the core issue: What should the goal be in North Omaha? What does success look like? There are four answers: A. Get people from outside the neighborhood INTO the neighborhood both physically and financially. In other words, people who are not African Americans must feel comfortable turning onto 24th Street on the way to the airport, making everyday purchases and spreading the word. B. Create a product-experience that deserves revisiting. That means that the building design and the streetscaping must be special. These elements can create new energy. C. Establish a successful commercial beachhead just north of 24th and Cuming. Add to it, going north. Do it repeatedly. Emulate Greenville Avenue northeast of downtown Dallas. D. Brand the entire North Omaha area early instead of waiting for everything to be complete. Give early adapters a brand hook that describes the essence of what will be, not what it currently is.
Core idea: Sell a future that ties in with the aspirations and identity of all kinds of people, all races and genders. Unique design, sustainability and collaboration are key values.
Caveat: There is not enough ‘bench strength’ in North Omaha to orchestrate this move. There are certainly talented people, but not enough to move all the parts and pieces. Trusting outsiders is required because this is a long process that will push many neighborhood locals out of their comfort zone.
But there is no better time for this because 1) people are in a mood for change, 2) downtown is growing and 3) diversity is becoming a hot topic in the mainstream as well as in corporate America.
7. The people that will populate the ‘newly transformed’ North Omaha will no longer be exclusively African Americans; they will be a diverse, youthful mixture of all races and worldviews. They will not be exclusively urban, nor will they be exclusively rural. These two segments of American society (and Omaha’s society) are pulling away from each other in the 50-plus demographic, but among people who are 40 or younger, they are coming together.
In other words, the younger generation is deeply heterogeneous— these people have cobbled together a unique value system, borrowing first from this philosophy, then from that philosophy. They embrace personalization, fusion, interchangeability and open, do it yourself collaboration (for example, crowdsourcing). They have eclectic interests and live in eclectic surroundings. Most of all, they are comfortable with opposites. Contrast and otherness enliven them rather than making them wary, as is often the case among the larger population. This is their generational DNA.
8. The physical environment that will attract and retain these people to North 24th and Cuming Street is as diverse , eclectic and ‘high contrast’ as the people themselves. Thus, buildings and landscape must—as Ebenezer Howard said in 1928—”marry town and country.” Architectural design must blend synthetic and organic. Stores, offices and residences must fuse ‘urban-industrial with rural-green.’ Colors combine muted with vivid. Glass and steel are blended with wood. Hard, precise lines are contrasted with soft lines.
8. Sensitive souls will appreciate the symbolic link between the eclectic lifestyles of the resident/visitor to North 24th and Cuming and the eclectic, high contrast building design we recommend. But the linkage between the environment and the ‘core user’ of this area is more tangible than symbolism would suggest.
9. Years ago, the Noble Prize was awarded to two scientists in Northern Europe whose research proved how visual imagery impacted human behavior. Energetic image impressions travel through the retina of the human eye to the visual cortex buried deep in the brain. When an image is high contrast (for instance, black positioned next to white or glossy steel positioned next to porous, brown wood with irregular lines), the visual cortex releases a gush of dopamine throughout the human brain, a natural mood enhancer!
Another way to say it: high contrast buildings and streetscapes ‘create new energy.
10. This compelling neuro-aesthetic research addresses the oft-stated desire of young, talented people to live and work in a place that has ‘good vibes.’ This subjective phrase has finally been quantified with 30 years of research. Of course, there are many other variables in revitalizing a neighborhood, but as all marketing/salespeople will tell you, feelings are more persuasive than logic. Attitude precedes behavior.
The Nobel Prize research adds a new dimension to design, construction, municipal planning, civic revitalization and talent attraction. It applies easily to North 24th St., especially since the Covid crisis has left us all craving ‘new energy.’
11. In a business book entitled Unstuck, the authors talk about how to revitalize an organization when it has become mired in out of date ideas and practices. Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro encourage readers to ‘Start a movement. Then give the movement a name….a name for your movement can help carry it from person to person like a piece of good gossip. A name builds identity, promotes commitment and cohesion.’
12. The keyword for this entire, multiyear project is ‘UrbaNatural™. This combination word blends urban with natural to describe buildings, streetscapes, neighborhoods and people who are most comfortable in environments—including interiors—that are high contrast and evoke good vibes (a phrase that is now being used in the Omaha strategic plan). The word is highly memorable, thus marketable. The response to the word is uniform….”Hmm...cool word, sustainable….I get it.”
13. The revitalization and rebranding of North Omaha must begin with cutting edge research, new design (inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Venturi) and marketing, marketing and more marketing. It must begin at the right place and proceed, unabated by temporary distractions, block by block, al the way North to Lake St.
The is a future for all of us. Not just those of us who are black. Not just those of us who are white. Both.
Not just steel, not just wood. Both.
Not exclusively exciting. Not completely peaceful.
Author Lynn Hinderaker, Growth Dynamix, is available to discuss this and other community-oriented strategic transformations. 402-208-5519