Without community engagement, sustainable development is never guaranteed. Ghouls, zombies, and goblins aren’t as scary as the history of failed development in our city. In the spirit of Halloween, One Omaha is channeling the ghosts of developments past.
A liminal space represents the time between “what was” and “what’s next.” They are the waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next – a time of waiting and not knowing the future. Such places are often associated with a melancholy atmosphere, a disconnection from reality, and sometimes a neglected aesthetic.
Abandoned lots and buildings are spaces without function. They feel unsettling because they once performed a role and had people in them. Once abandoned, they stand as husks of civilization.
In 2005, Kansas-based company Townsend Inc. proposed WallStreet Tower – a $190 million 32-story building filled with residential condos, offices, and a hotel. The developers had already created a high-rise residential condominium of the same name in downtown Kansas City. They wanted to bring its formula for sophisticated urban living to Omaha.
The project was to be built on the site of the former Union Pacific headquarters, located at 14th and Dodge streets. Demolition of the former railroad headquarters wrapped up in 2008, but the tower never got off the ground.
WallStreet Tower would have been the third tallest building in Omaha upon its completion. Anticipated rates for a condo unit ranged from $195,000 – $620,000. The project was expected to be completed by the fall of 2009.
Just as the old U.P. building was being torn down to make way for the tower, the Great Recession hit, collapsing the real estate market. Financing for condo projects dried up, as did Omaha’s downtown condo market, which was already overbuilt as developer after developer jumped into the action.
“What do you mean, ‘if’?” said Jason Townsend, the project’s developer, when questioned about the project’s timeline by a World-Herald reporter in 2009. “We’re moving forward. It’s going to get done.”
Obviously, it never did.
Changing Hands: Lanoha’s Plans
After paying millions to demolish the Union Pacific building, then sitting on an entire city block of unused land for years, Townsend sold it to Omaha’s Lanoha Real Estate Company for $2.75 million in 2014.
Lanoha then announced plans for a $200 million, 30-story skyscraper to be located at 1416 Dodge Street. The building would have consisted of two towers with an offset core allowing for a wide open floor plan full of natural light, with 700,000 square feet of retail spaces, hotel rooms, and entertainment, including a “sky lobby” on the 11th floor with restaurants, bars, a fitness center, and outdoor seating. Housing was deliberately excluded from the plan, as developer Jason Lanoha predicted Omahans would not want to pay the high rents required for such an expensive project.
In 2019, Lanoha spoke out against skepticism of the project, saying the company wouldn’t be releasing images if they didn’t think they could accomplish the plan. “It’s hard, you know, there is no doubt, and I suppose it’s easy to be a critic on it,” he said, “but we’re focused on trying to actually make it happen.”
Lanoha’s skyscraper would have fulfilled an unofficial commitment to city officials to erect a tall structure at 14th and Dodge that enhances the city’s skyline. The city’s downtown master plan calls for skyscrapers capable of bringing jobs to the central business district – such as the planned Mutual of Omaha headquarters.
Making Deals With the City
In 2022, the City of Omaha made a deal with Lanoha, granting the city ownership of the vacant lot in exchange for the city-owned site where the W. Dale Clark Library currently sits.
The land swap paves the way for a new Mutual of Omaha headquarters to rise on the property at 15th and Douglas Streets. The former Union Pacific lot won’t officially be given to the city until the library’s demolition is wrapped up at the end of the year.
When we occupy liminal spaces, we feel like we are just on the verge of something. What lies ahead for the lot at 14th and Dodge? As of March 2022, the city has not named any companies or developers showing an interest in the site. Any discussions taking place are still in the early stages.
Since the lot was cleared for repurposing, it has been in a perpetual state of liminality—its old purpose is over, with a new purpose yet to be revealed.
This blog was written by Noelle Blood-Anderson, One Omaha’s communications manager.