Connect, Think Small, Restore/Repurpose
Former Executive Director, Restoration Exchange Omaha
Sometimes, the best way to look ahead is to look behind. Did you know:
- In 1867, the Omaha Horse Railway Company was granted a 50-year franchise to build and operate a street railway in the city.
- The original track started at 9th and Farnam, then zigzagged to 18th and Cass streets.
- By 1926, the railway encompassed Benson, Dundee, Florence, South Omaha, Carter Lake and Council Bluffs.
- By 1955, it was all over. The reasons most often cited for the streetcar’s demise: subsidies for automobiles, better economies that allowed households to progress from owning one car to owning two and the pull of suburban living.
If you want a sense of what life was like during the streetcar’s heyday, hop on a bicycle and retrace its routes. You’ll see clusters of historic buildings nestled nicely into neighborhoods. They were built to house businesses that provided daily necessities and acted as community gathering spaces for those living nearby.
The beauty of these small clusters is that they were typically only a block or two in size and fairly small in square footage, which made them affordable for entrepreneurs who wanted to run a solvent business that also supported their families – a bakery, deli, grocery, tavern, flower shop, barbershop – you get the idea. Despite their small size, these clusters created a sense of place, and the people who ran them became part of your circle: the butcher who knew your favorite cut of meat, the pharmacist who knew your kids by name, the bartender who was ready with a joke when you and your neighbor stopped in for a beer after a hard day’s work.
Restoration Exchange Omaha – a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and restoration of older homes, buildings and neighborhoods in the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro through education and advocacy – recently worked on a study that identified 44 small commercial districts along the former streetcar routes. Some of these districts are familiar and are thriving today – Dundee, South 24th Street, Blackstone, Gifford Park and Benson. But others – like 16th and Pine, 40th and Ames, and Military and 45th Street – remain untouched and are ripe for development.
My advice for returning these commercial districts to their former glory: think small, connect them to multimodal transportation options, and renovate/repurpose their existing structures for present-day use.
In order for a small commercial node to succeed, it has to be connected to multimodal forms of transportation. Downtown Benson, for example, is easily accessible by bus and is – thanks to continuous efforts from Mode Shift Omaha and others – becoming a pedestrian and bike-friendly destination.
A recent study of Tucson by the National Trust of Historic Preservation revealed areas with older buildings and a mix of old and new buildings are significantly more walkable and more accessible by Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar. Sixty-two percent of areas with older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks outperform the citywide average walkability composite score, compared to just 34 percent of areas with predominantly large, new buildings.
It’s important to keep the buildings in these commercial nodes small enough so that entrepreneurs can afford to rent them and run a business in the black without having to attract patrons from across the city and beyond. Back in the day, people shopped more, bought fresh, stored less, got more exercise by hoofing it three or four blocks to the store and interacted with their neighbors along the way. Today, it’s “normal” to use a two-ton vehicle and a quarter tank of gas to go get a dozen eggs or a quart of mayonnaise. Hmmmm.
My last point is near and dear to my heart: let’s make sure we renovate and repurpose the small older buildings in these commercial nodes, beautiful structures that were built to last and are loved by many. A recent example of this trend is the story of Vis Major at 3501 Center Street, a new neighborhood brewery and taproom brought to life by an Omaha couple with a passion for home brewing and old buildings.
The successful revitalization of commercial nodes along Omaha’s streetcar line will require property owners and developers to be in it for the long term. It’s easy to want to “cash out” by relying on throwing up a chain store or monolithic apartment complex. But this can quickly undo all of the work that went into making these nodes so unique and special.
Omaha has always been and will continue to be a community of neighborhoods, each with its own history, character and identity, each once connected by a streetcar line. From my view, creating a successful streetcar system along Farnam Street is a great first step in looking ahead.