Village Redevelopment Plans for Next Generation
By Lynn Sanchez
In 2006, the 60-block area near historic Prospect Hill cemetery was one of the deadliest locations in Omaha.
Residents lived in fear of being shot. Many would not allow their children to play outdoors.
North Omaha community leaders from the Empowerment Network, Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) and others were concerned and decided to tackle the issue head-on. Their first act: Listening to the residents.
Long-time neighborhood leader Caletta Hodges told them, “It’s great that you want to do some new plans, but what we really need is help with neighborhood cleanups.” So, a cleanup was organized. Then block parties. A summer job program for youth followed.
These simple things began to create real change in the neighborhood.
Empowerment Network Director of Operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris recalled the day all those years ago that leaders of the various organizations and residents took a bus tour through the neighborhood. The source of the problems plaguing the neighborhood quickly became apparent. “(Resident) Ruthie Harper was able to point out those houses that were homes and those that had individuals that were causing a lot of ruckus,” Ferris said.
From day one, the residents were part of the solution.
Thirteen years later, Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association President Rondae Hill told the crowd about the transformation she had witnessed. “I was born and raised in that neighborhood, and it’s been reborn,” she said. “It’s a whole new community. In our neighborhood, we actually have kids in the street again, riding their bikes! We have a little grocery store now and people are waving to each other going into the grocery store. We still have some problem areas that we are working on, but it has come so far.”
A progress report and future outlook for the Village Redevelopment Plan, which includes Prospect Hill neighborhood, was presented at a community meeting on January 11, at North High School’s Viking Center.
The presentation was hosted by The Empowerment Network and 16 other local organizations. According to meeting handouts, the plan is based on input from over 8,000 North Omaha residents, neighborhood associations, faith leaders, nonprofit organizations, local businesses, schools and the City.
The Village Redevelopment Plan of 2020 is a sweeping, multidimensional, inclusive strategy encompassing gainful employment, education, cultural preservation, transportation, safety, health and stability.
The plan targets its resources first in areas they refer to as “nodes of opportunity,” where “icons” of the cultural, business and community already exist. Some examples include Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, Salem Baptist Church and The Omaha Star Newspaper.
This announcement has been a long time coming. The City Council originally approved the zone-based development plan for inclusion in the City’s Master Plan in 2011. A crowd of several hundred stakeholders, STEP UP interns and community members listened intently to invited speakers, hosted by Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network. Barney gave a detailed PowerPoint recapping the project’s history and continued evolution, and crediting the involvement of its many partners. Throughout the meeting, attendees were also invited to leave written feedback and suggestions.
Tim Kenny from Nebraska Investment Financial Authority (NIFA) told the crowd when he first came to North Omaha, he immediately recognized the potential. “These ingredients are all here; all the opportunity, all the talent, all the population energy, all the resources are here in order to achieve great things,” he told the crowd. But he also knew it would take time, which could feel frustrating. He emphasized that every plan has multiple steps. “(NIFA) said let’s put your plan on the table and move forward into the next generation and the next decade and recognize the potential that exists here that’s all around us.”
District 2 City Councilman Ben Gray told the crowd that earlier studies such as the Chamber of Commerce’s 2007 North Omaha Development Plan provided the foundation for the Village Redevelopment. Before 75 North or the Highlander project existed, he said, large community meetings were being held to gather input about how to develop various “zones” or areas of North Omaha around existing community icons. The Prospect Hill wish-list included mixed income neighborhoods, affordable housing options, new recreational facilities, businesses and stores.
Thomas Warren, former Police Chief and former board chair of 75 North, explained that Hilltop and Pleasant View public housing was demolished by OHA and then nothing happened for about 10 years. Warren credited Willie Barney with suggesting Atlanta’s “Purpose Built Communities” to fill the void. That organization had successfully turned around Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood from a high-crime area to a thriving community with affordable and market rate housing and a strong emphasis on education, which meshed well with Prospect Hill’s vision.
Breaking ground in 2015, The Highlander today offers 300 housing units, divided into thirds between market rate, affordable and mixed income and several new children’s programs. “This was probably the most significant investment in North Omaha in my lifetime,” said Warren. “We’re talking $90 million of capital investment.” Warren told the high school students in attendance, “We want North Omaha to be an attractive area for our next generation of young professionals, of leaders, entrepreneurs, of CEOs. This investment is really about you. ”
The development will soon include senior housing, now under construction at 30th and Parker. The $25 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods grant won by 75 North in 2019 will provide seed money for redeveloping Spencer Homes, Warren said. “Spencer will be excavated. There will be a number of focus groups or charettes, where we will solicit input from the residents.” Collaborations with Howard Kennedy School have included an extended school day and year, and strategies to improve academic outcomes that have already improved test scores, Warren said.
Holy Name Housing CEO Mike Gawley brought the crowd up to date on housing in the area of the Malcolm X/Adams Park area. “We got about 25 done, we have 22 more homes under contract that we have plans to build,” including seven townhomes, Gawley said, adding, “We recognize there’s a need for other types of housing (in the area).” Along with its first construction of row houses, Holy Name hopes to address the so called “missing middle” by building multi-unit housing types compatible in scale with detached single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. “We need more dense housing to get back into North Omaha.”
Teresa Coleman Hunter, Executive Director of Family Housing Advisory Service recalled walking to Lothrop school as a child, watching houses on her route deteriorate year by year. They were eventually demolished, leaving empty lots. Returning to her neighborhood as an adult, she was thrilled to see new houses going up in these lots. “And guess who it was?” she asked. “Holy Name Housing!”
Now that she is on the “other side of the fence,” Hunter does everything in her power to help people find ways to afford good, stable housing. “We help people who are having problems staying in their homes. We are trying to make sure everybody graduates from high school…. So if there are families with school age children, we can help if you need help with rent and utility assistance.” She also encouraged all those attending to take advantage of her organization’s free financial education services.
The Empowerment Network hosts a monthly community meeting on the 2nd Saturday of every month at the Viking Center, Omaha North High School, 4410 N. 36th St.