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The rundown area north of downtown would be transformed into one of Omaha's most inviting neighborhoods under a plan unveiled Thursday.
Mayor Mike Fahey said the proposals to create "Omaha's new urban neighborhood" are a necessity, not just pretty pictures in a 100-page book.
The plan is grandiose in scope, but there's no real money to pull off its biggest idea for an anchor destination - a four-square-block baseball stadium or museum district between Webster and Cuming Streets, from 14th to 16th Streets.
Both the Omaha Royals and Creighton University expressed interest in joint use of a stadium. No financial commitment has come from them or the city.
But the plan is even broader than a controversial new baseball stadium surrounded by apartments, shops and restaurants.
The proposal covers 80 blocks that are now dominated by pawn shops, rooming houses, light industry, a vacant railyard and shuttered factories.
The possibilities for the area were underscored at a press conference held by civic leaders in the old Tip-Top Building at 16th and Cuming Streets, which is undergoing a $20 million renovation into loft apartments and an entertainment complex.
Commitments to build in the area were expressed by Saddle Creek Records, the Omaha-based, independent recording company, and Bluestone Development.
Jason Kulbel of Saddle Creek Records said his company is looking for a site for a live-music venue called Slowdown, which would include a bar, a concert hall and business offices.
If all goes as planned, Slowdown would open in 2006, said Kulbel, who says the area has potential as an entertainment district.
"We want to wake up this sleeping giant," said Bluestone's Christian Christensen, who is the developer of the SoMA townhouses south of the Old Market.
Christensen said he is looking at developing 25 to 40 apartments on top of the Saddle Creek project.
He calls the area NoDo.
The administration will submit the recommendations to the Planning Board in June and to the City Council in July to guide development, Fahey said.
Such a transformation won't be easy, said Doug Bisson, who led the HDR Inc. consulting team that prepared the plan.
Most Omahans "have either no perception of the study area or a negative perception of it," Bisson wrote in the report, which was financed by $180,000 in grants from the city and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
If all went well, it would take 10 to 15 years to turn the concepts into reality.
The area is already in transition, with no guidance on how to shape it. Creighton University's expansion as far east to 17th Street and the Qwest Center Omaha at 10th Street have drawn attention to the area in between.
The reshaping of Abbott Drive from Eppley Airfield onto Cuming Street has redirected traffic through the area.
Speculators already have picked up on the potential, Fahey said, and the city must take control in order to ensure that its eastern entrance is attractive.
"You have to start with a plan for the highest and best use," Fahey said.
Some property in the area has been sold, and land options have been taken out on other pieces, driving up property prices.
The study also concludes that an anchor is needed to make the area a destination for all Omahans.
"Without an anchor, quality development will occur," according to the report, "but it will occur much more slowly and most likely not at the intensity levels desired."
The easiest anchor to create would be a massive residential project for the four-square-block area east of Creighton's new soccer complex west of 17th Street.
Another option would be a museum district, with a science museum, modern art museum or both.
But those two concepts pale compared to the attention given to building a ballpark to serve Creighton and the Omaha Royals. Rosenblatt would remain as the home of the College World Series.
The Royals would use the new park for 70 to 75 days a year, with Creighton, special events and tournaments raising the total annual use as high as 150 days, according to the report.
A new stadium could pick up the summer slack from the new convention center and arena, where the maximum usage is from September though April.
The area's parking lots and other lots would be used, generating more foot traffic in the area.
The report visualizes a park styled after other minor league parks in Memphis, Tenn.; Akron, Ohio; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Indianapolis.
But there is the little item of coming up with $40 million to build it.
The city doesn't have the money, Fahey said. Providing the infrastructure and assembling the property might be as far as the city could go toward making a new baseball stadium happen.
"The other parts of the development are just as important as a ballpark," Fahey said.
One area that Fahey and Chamber President David Brown emphasized is the portion along Abbott as it makes the turn into Cuming.
"That's a real unique piece of property that could be turned into an outstanding corporate campus," Fahey said.
Brown said the property could be another tool in recruiting a major corporate relocation.
In addition to the office or corporate campus area west of the Gallup University Campus, which the plan divides the area into several distinct districts.
Entertainment district: Includes the convention center and arena, extending west to 14th Street.
Residential-retail district: Between 14th and 16th Streets, with multistory buildings and townhouses built to the sidewalks.
Arts district: The warehouse area surrounding the Hot Shops Art Center at 13th and Nicholas Streets.
Light industry district: Extends north of the arts district as far as Seward Street.
The intention is to meet the employment needs of the north Omaha community while extending the downtown area north to Cuming, Fahey said.
The proposal won praise from the Rev. John Schlegel, president of Creighton University, and City Councilman Frank Brown.
The plan that came out of the 18-month survey was attentive to the job-creation needs for north Omaha, Brown said. "I'm pleased with that commitment."
Schlegel said the north downtown concept fits well with the $100 million that Creighton is spending on its campus east of 24th Street.
"This will open up opportunities for our students for entertainment, housing and employment," Schlegel said. "The Saddle Creek announcement will excite our students today."
World-Herald staff writer Niz Proskocil contributed to this report.
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