Showing posts with label development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label development. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What a difference three decades made

Looking north across Baton Rouge from atop the
Louisiana State Capitol, summer 1981.

Looking north across Baton Rouge from atop the
Louisiana State Capitol, autumn 2011.

The blight of 1981 was brought to you by the failure of private enterprise and a non-profit hospital's move to the suburbs.

The renewal in subsequent decades was brought to you by the expenditure of tax dollars by state government aiming for urban renewal and seeking to consolidate state offices into a revitalized capitol complex, away from rented space flung haphazardly across the capital city. Even in Louisiana -- freewheeling, Caribbean, politically corrupt Louisiana -- government ain't all bad. Or even predominantly bad.

America's right-wing, blow-it-all-up-for-liberty, anti-government crusaders would do well to remember that and allow a wee bit of perspective to reestablish itself amid all the hyper-ideological fulminating.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Why I'm here . . . and not there -- Part 2,378

Below, I want you to take a look at an unremarkable snapshot before someone tucks it away in the Omaha scrapbook.

From the Omaha World-Herald:
Imagine a streetcar ride from downtown to the Henry Doorly Zoo along a transformed 10th Street boulevard.

At 10th and Bancroft Streets, a fountain would be the centerpiece of a new roundabout. Signs would help visitors decide whether to go to the zoo, get on Interstate 80, stop at Lauritzen Gardens or head to the new north downtown baseball stadium. Tenth Street would be renamed Parkway 10.

For now, it's all just a pipe dream.

But it's the vision that was shared Monday by Mayor Mike Fahey, City Councilman Garry Gernandt and a number of south Omaha neighborhood leaders.

The first step toward improving the corridors along 10th and 13th Streets is setting new rules and regulations that will preserve the area's character while enhancing it with new lighting, landscaping and attractive development.

The city now has limited control over the type and look of commercial development along those entryways to downtown.

Monday's announcement in the mayor's conference room seemed to demonstrate that Fahey had made amends with the south Omaha neighborhoods. After months of controversy over plans to demolish Rosenblatt Stadium and build a new downtown ballfield, Fahey stood with many of the people who had condemned him earlier this year.

"All was forgiven months and months ago," said Jason Smith, the former Save Rosenblatt leader.

Even as the Rosenblatt fight raged on, neighborhood leaders and the Fahey administration were simultaneously working on the plan for 10th and 13th Streets.

Fahey said that in the seven years since he and Gernandt were elected, Rosenblatt has been the only issue that caused significant disagreement between the two. They have worked together to improve the 24th Street business district, build the new South Omaha Library and construct the Salvation Army's Kroc Center, Fahey said.

"Support for south Omaha has always been an administration goal," Fahey said. He said he remains committed to "improving the look and feel of the entire city."
"WELL," SAYS ANYONE from around these parts. "So?"

Exactly. Here, we had a fairly boilerplate lead story in today's evening edition about cool things the city hopes to do in south Omaha . . . hand in hand with politicians and civic leaders it, two months ago, battled in a nasty guerrilla war over the fate of the neighborhood ball yard.

Albeit a ball yard that seats 23,000 people.

And you know what else? I'll bet these pie-in-the-sky plans actually come to fruition in a few years. Unlike pie-in-the-sky plans regularly floated in other municipalities of my intimate acquaintance.

Working and playing well with others. It's a concept proven to work in contexts other than bribery and kickbacks.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Making wishes into horses . . . or stadiums

Whenever a city aims to do something big -- or something as simple as small but different -- there will be squabbles.

OK, there will be knockdown, drag-out fights. Blood in the streets, even. That's the nature of what happens when a city full of non-Stepford Wives tries to combine a thing called "development" with a thing called "democracy."

THE SAD FACT of the human condition is that some people are less visionary than others. And some people are less intelligent, too. And some people just flat-out don't like to work and play well with others.

Furthermore, this "democracy" thing gives contrarians (of whatever stripe) plenty of leeway to create plenty of mischief. Not to mention strife. Mayors can even get shouted down at public forums.

For many cities, that contrarian-democracy interface can be enough to keep a city in the minor leagues forever, if not mire its citizens in an inescapable backwater hellhole. The Bell Curve being what it is most everywhere -- though some areas can be more or less blessed than average -- what is the difference between thriving, developing municipality and "Oh my God, you live where!?"

I don't know that anyone is exactly sure, but I suspect it has something to do with being slightly above average on the Bell Curve populationwise, an effective chief executive and active, visionary civic and business leadership.

For Omaha, it would seem the stars are aligning. After a civic donnybrook, the dust has cleared and there's going to be a new downtown baseball stadium right here in River City. And the College World Series will remain in the Big O until at least 2030.

And the city might be getting a brand-new streetcar system as part of the bargain. With the price of oil climbing into the stratosphere, that's not only cool, but practical.

WE READ the World-Herald today, oh boy. About a lucky city that made the grade:

Fresh from reaching an agreement with the NCAA to play the College World Series at a new downtown stadium, Mayor Mike Fahey is turning his attention to what's next.

Out of his drawer, Fahey pulled plans for a $55 million streetcar loop that would join the Old Market and Creighton University to north downtown. That loop would go by the front entrance of the new stadium on Webster Street.

"It's incumbent on any mayor to continually think about the next move," Fahey said today. "We want the momentum to continue."

Fahey has been talking about a streetcar system for several years and received a privately funded proposal in the fall of 2006. But the streetcar plan sat on the back burner as Fahey fired up the effort to land a long-term agreement to keep the CWS in Omaha.

That 18-month effort is now close to completion with the NCAA agreeing Wednesday to keep the CWS in Omaha for at least 20 years after the current contract expires at the end of the 2010 championship.

"It seems to make sense economically," Fahey said of the streetcar system. "If you look around the country at progressive cities, better mass transportation systems are part of the equation."

The city may need to move quickly, perhaps this summer, to come up with a financing plan to fund the cost of a streetcar, Fahey said.


The downtown streetcar loop was proposed as the first phase of a more extensive system that could connect downtown with the new Midtown Crossing residential and commercial development and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Another branch could run south from downtown to the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Mutual of Omaha, the developer of Midtown Crossing, has talked with the city about opening the western branch sooner rather than later, Fahey said.

While the stadium and streetcar are separate projects, they complement each other, said Fahey and Doug Bisson, a community planner with Omaha-based HDR.

"One project by itself is cool," Bisson said, "but the two together are really amazing."

Bisson, who suggested a downtown ballpark in a 2005 study of north downtown and worked on the streetcar project, said the new stadium linked to other downtown attractions would create "that wow factor."

"What it would do is turn our downtown into a true downtown," Bisson said.

But first things first. Fahey wants to turn the CWS agreement into a firm contract. That's likely to happen before the series opens at Rosenblatt Stadium on June 14.

CWS Inc. President Jack Diesing said a championship contract that runs through at least 2030 is an unprecedented feat of which Omaha should be proud. The city has hosted the CWS since 1950 with a series of one-year to five-year contracts.

"The NCAA does not have any agreements that are five years, let alone the 20-year deal we have," Diesing said.

The exact length of the contract is still being negotiated — it's possible that the final contract could be for 25 years.

I COME FROM BATON ROUGE. To me, this kind of civic competence and rapid development is disconcerting. For all the charms Louisiana possesses -- and there are many -- organizational ability and indomitable civic spirit are not among them.

Growing up in Baton Rouge, I observed many people come up with many grand civic schemes. In fact, there is a veritable Mardi Gras parade of cool stuff that either never got off the drawing board, got shot down by flak from the short-sighted contrarian brigades or actually got developed but then died on the vine for lack of public interest.

The thing is, my hometown has all kinds of transportation, natural-resource, climate and geographical advantages that cities like Omaha could only lust after. Perhaps that's part of Baton Rouge's problem.

When the pioneers started settling the Nebraska Territory more than 150 years ago, there were two basic options for the newcomers: 1) Be industrious, hardy and civic minded, or 2) die. On occasion, the civic-minded part hit a rough patch in that rough-and-tumble pioneer era but, fortunately, industrious and hardy always were enough to carry the day.

In case you hadn't noticed, winter can be cold, long and brutal on the Great Plains. Summer can be dry and hotter than a blast furnace. And wherever you see a tree that's not in a river valley or along a creek, you can be assured that the pioneers or their descendants planted it there.

Likewise, out in western Nebraska long, long ago, there used to be another description for the Sandhills -- which lie squarely within America's present-day grain- and cattle belts. That would be sand dunes.

CIVIC LEADERS from my hometown like to take road trips -- junkets to study some big-time place or another to collect ideas on how to turn Baton Rouge into America's Next Great City (TM). Likewise, there have been any number of grand plans, blueprints that surface long enough to make a splash in the news media before slowly sinking into the primordial muck of the Bluebonnet Swamp, never to be heard of again.

So, what is the deal with that beautiful downtown park that's supposed to be built on piers above the Mississippi River?

And why, exactly, is Baton Rouge prevented from being the abandoned-building, civic-dishabille capital of the United States only by the existence of New Orleans and a few unfortunate Northeastern hellholes?

What does studying Austin . . . or Nashville . . . or Portland have to do with fixing stuff like that? What do those cities today have in common with my hometown?

IF STUDY A CITY they must, I'd suggest Red Stick's poobahs come to Omaha not for a few days, but for a few months. Spend some time in its public schools, and see exactly how much taxpayers have to spend to keep them in a hell of a lot better shape than Baton Rouge's.

And stay until they understand why people in my mid-city school district repeatedly raise their own property taxes to make sure their schools stay that way. Let's just say the physical difference between Omaha's Westside High School and my alma mater, Baton Rouge Magnet High, is akin to the difference between midtown Manhattan and Port-au-Prince.

The Omaha metropolitan area is similar in size to the Baton Rouge metro, though Omaha itself is a good deal larger than Louisiana's capital. Both are river cities, with Omaha hugging the Missouri while Baton Rouge is a major port on the Mississippi.

Likewise, the downtowns of both cities used to be dumpy and largely desolate after 5 p.m. Baton Rouge's is getting past the dumpiness and desolation (and one plan-become-reality, the Shaw Center for the Arts, is magnificent) but -- as evidenced by the kind of development epitomized by the planned baseball stadium and the present Qwest Center -- Omaha's is approaching "Wow!"

IF A BATON ROUGE delegation came to Omaha, they'd learn that what now is "Wow!" was, a decade ago, a lead smelter. And a scrap yard.

But I guess there's nothing to be learned from that little fact. Or from how that little fact came to be . . . fact. As opposed to just another fancy plan.

UPDATE: Omaha's new deal to keep the College World Series -- at the new downtown stadium -- isn't for 20 years.