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Adelante South Omaha! Forward South Omaha

By Martin Shukert, FAICP and Patrick Dunn, ASLA
Published in Landscape Architect and Specifier News
August, 2005
South Omaha, established in 1885 as a land development project of the Union Stockyards Company, has been a gateway of economic opportunity for people of many ethnicities and cultures during its history. The stockyards and the industries that grew up around them created jobs for central and eastern European Immigrants to America, who often settled in surrounding neighborhoods. The South Omaha Business District was the center of this burgeoning community, and grew into a commercial district second in importance only to downtown Omaha.

Starting in the 1980s and accelerating through the 1990s, South Omaha has experienced a commercial renaissance, propelled by the growth of Omaha’s Latino community. A flowering of new shops and restaurants has once again made this historic district one of Omaha’s liveliest places and a center for new enterprise. The business district provides its residents with an array of goods and services so important to central city neighborhoods. But its special quality and vitality is in the process of transforming into much more–South Omaha will soon be a destination for all the people of Omaha and for visitors to the city as well.
This expanded role for South Omaha benefits the businesses, people and the overall community by:
– Increasing markets for local business people which helps their enterprises expand.
– Making a unique part of Omaha more approachable to people from all parts of the city, increasing the variety, vitality, and quality of life that Omaha offers to its citizens.
– Creating a new destination for visitors that is close to such attractions as Downtown, Henry Doorly Zoo, Rosenblatt Stadium, and Lauritzen Gardens.
Recent Planning Efforts
The South Omaha business district stands on the verge of great opportunity by using its features, history, ethnic flavor, and unique businesses to serve new customers and visitors. To take advantage of these new opportunities, the city of Omaha and the chamber of commerce’s Target Omaha program joined forces in 2002 to analyze potential markets and develop business and development strategies for the district. The Forward South Omaha planning was unusual in including a detailed market survey that focused on potential new customers for the district and involved people vitally interested in the community in planning for its future.
The market survey included a sample of 400 adults who lived between two and 15 miles away from the business district–people who might be from the core of an expanded market for the district.
The second part of the process asked people who know South Omaha best–its people, businesses, and property owners–about the condition and potential of the district. This was done through a variety of methods, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups. A survey returned by about 100 area residents, businesses, and property owners indicated that South Omaha’s greatest strengths were its historic character, business growth, location, restaurants, diversity, and opportunity to attract new business. Its most important liabilities are the poor appearance of properties and the overall district, a lack of a sense of safety and security, negative public perceptions, and inconvenient parking. The most important actions for the next five years will be improving the appearance of buildings and the 24th Street streetscape, providing an improved police presence to create a safer-feeling environment, advertising the district effectively, improving street lighting, and providing more convenient parking.
The Concept
The Forward South Omaha concept is based on this market research and designed to make visiting South 24th Street a memorable and pleasurable experience. It is a major part of an overall district strategy that will expand South Omaha’s appeal to its present and potential customer base by:
– Creating an attractive, renewed physical environment that feels safe and comfortable to its users.
– Giving visitors a quality experience that will create return business.
– Providing excellent upkeep and maintenance of South Omaha through good district management.
– Marketing the area successfully to a variety of customer groups.
– Communicating a distinctive Latino flavor while respecting and celebrating a multi-ethnic heritage.
The South Omaha concept proposes a variety of features that help make this special and vital commercial district more enjoyable, easier to use, more meaningful to a variety of people, and safer.
Traffic and Parking
Parking is an important consideration in any business district and this is especially true in South Omaha. The South Omaha Concept will provide diagonal parking along 24th Street from L to Q Streets. This will help slow traffic through the business district and create a much safer pedestrian environment. It will also greatly increase the amount of parking along 24th Street that customers find most convenient. Traffic signals at M, N, and O streets will be replaced by four-way stop signs. These four-way stops will calm traffic and create a much safer environment for pedestrians. The diagonal parking and new street circulation concept will be defined by corner nodes at each intersection. These nodes will be landscaped, which will make it easier for pedestrians to cross 24th Street.
Streetscape Components
In the Forward South Omaha concept, a new streetscape and sidewalk will replace the current expanses of concrete. Each of the following features work to create a new “Mexican townscape,” drawing energy from a cross-cultural icon–the tree of life.
The Tree of Life Gateway: At the entrance to the business district at 24th and L and 24th and Q, special gateway features will reflect the many nationalities and cultures that built South Omaha. The 24th Street concept reflects the color, shapes, and symbols of the district’s Latino culture, but also respects other ethnic groups that retain actual and sentimental attachments to the business district. The tree itself will be 36 feet tall made out of two massive steel plates and will support three vertical light tubes symbolizing the growth of this area within the structure of the city. In addition, cut metal pendants of timeless cultural icons will ornament the tree.
The Stern: Unifying and activating the horizontal ground plane will be a nearly continuous winding band of green pavers. This stern will provide the framework upon which the features of the streetscape will grow.
Leaf Planters: Cast-in-place, color conditioned, raised planters of various sizes and orientations appear along the stern. Color and texture will explode from these planters in the form of detailed vertical ceramic patterns and seasonally changed perennial and annual planting beds.
Pottery Benches: Pottery styles from various ethnicities will adorn these two tiered circular benches. Custom made ceramic tile will be applied to a cast in place core. At the center of each bench extending vertically to twelve feet are cut metal lined light columns.
Seed Seats: Groupings of vividly colored circular precast seats will not only provide additional seating opportunities, but will give the streetscape year-long color.
Bus Shelters: The leaf-shaped roof of these shelters will be made from stainless steel and copper. Exposed from below roof joist will emulate leaf veining giving texture to these simple structures.
Paving: In addition to the stem paving, three other primary paving systems will be employed. The most dominant will be remnant granite paving throughout the mid-block areas. Color conditioned tooled paving will occupy the intersection corner node areas and finally, circular and leaf-shaped paving areas will symbolize the Latino traditions of papercut artistry.
Street Lighting: New street lighting will line 24th Street, designed to recall the traditional lighting standards that once graced South Omaha and can still be found in some places. These included ornamental brackets, a “teardrop”-shaped pendant light, and an ornamented bracket.
The Town Square: The town square is a place of special importance in Mexican communities, and people involved with the planning process emphasize the importance of South Omaha’s version of this institution, the Plaza at 24th and N. Yet, the Plaza, originally designed as a small sidewalk park between the street and parking lot, does not satisfy the true potential of the Square. The plan envisions a new and revitalized La Plaza de la Raza, designed to create one of Omaha’s most actively used small public spaces. La Plaza will build on the concept of a town square and will include a bandstand and performance area, jets of water that will provide light and activity, and a plaza of flags celebrating the major cultures of this area.
Current Work Efforts
Community support and favorable bidding has allowed this project to proceed throughout 2004 and 2005. The street and parking is nearing completion and streetscape work is following closely behind. Soon, the fabrication and installation of custom tile and metal work will signal a new chapter for this ever evolving and growing cultural landmark. ¡Adelante South Omaha! Or Forward South Omaha is truly in full swing. This streetscape has an excitement and an energy seldom seen in the Midwest and proves that when it comes to Latino urbanism, more is definitely more.

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