Omaha’s 111-year-old Keeline Building poised for $6.8 million revamp

Developer plans to retain the historic use as office and commercial center

By: - June 2, 2022 5:45 am
Keeline Building

Keeline Building, 319 S. 17th St., set for rehab (Courtesy of Baron Commercial Real Estate)

When the historic Keeline Building rose more than a century ago in downtown Omaha, it proved pivotal to the area’s shift from a residential to a commercial and public center.

In fact, the home of a famous Omahan sat on the property at 319 S. 17th St. before the seven-story Keeline was built and opened just east of the then-new Douglas County Courthouse.

Keeline Building
Keeline Building, 17th and Harney Streets (Courtesy of Baron Commercial Real Estate)

It was a turning point, according to the nomination that boosted the Keeline to national historic status:

“This effectually changed the face of the area surrounding the Douglas County Courthouse,” the application said, “to a commerce and public center ridding downtown Omaha of what was left of the early residential settlement.” 

Fast forward

Fast forward to today, as a $6.8 million rehabilitation project aims to prepare the structure for its next chapter — continued use as a commercial and office center.

The plan, poised to receive $1.53 million in public tax-increment financing, stands in contrast with many other recent downtown projects that have repurposed or replaced older buildings with new and trendy housing.

Mike Moylan of Shamrock Development said that while conversion to residential use was tempting and explored, his team decided that the Keeline’s proximity to other redevelopment projects made commercial use more alluring.

He pointed to the new Douglas County Juvenile Justice Center, which will house offices, courts, programming and a detention center nearby.

“At this particular location, we feel the office market can be sustained,” said Moylan. 

Popular ground-floor retailers

The 61,000-square-foot Keeline has just lost one of its major tenants, as the Douglas County Juvenile Probation Office left its 15,000 square feet to move to the new and adjacent justice center.

But Moylan predicts also that as downtown revs up with the riverfront tri-park revamp, the Steelhouse music venue and more, small businesses will look to the refurbished Keeline that is just off the future modern streetcar line.

Ground-level retailers currently at the Keeline are expected to continue operations, he said, including longtime Bob’s Grill and Cafe, Oasis Falafel and the Backline Comedy Theatre.

Takechi’s Jewelers was a mainstay but has been listed for a long while as “permanently closed.” 

The supply of downtown office space has diminished with many buildings converted to residential. We have confidence that demand will be strong for smaller offices.

– Mike Moylan, Shamrock Development

Shamrock Development, which has the Keeline property under contract to buy, is planning renovations that include replacing the roof and the heating and air mechanical systems, and making improvements to first-floor storefronts and the brick exterior.

TIF subsidy

Construction is to begin as soon as possible, with completion anticipated in spring 2023.

Wednesday, the Omaha Planning Board recommended approval of the $1.53 million in tax-increment financing support. That was higher than the $1.4 million requested, but city planner Don Seten said the TIF committee wanted to include an additional amount to help finance the proposed Omaha streetcar.

Keeline Building
Keeline Building in downtown Omaha (Courtesy of Baron Commercial Real Estate)

The City Council has yet to approve the subsidy.

Under the Legislature-approved TIF economic development tool, property tax revenue generated on new or improved development goes toward paying off the developer’s loan, generally for 20 years. Normally property tax revenue goes to schools and local governments.

Property taxes paid on the value of the structure before the proposed rehab continues to go to the traditional coffers.

City officials said uncertainties often encountered at such physically constrained and “highly built out” sites such as downtown reinforce the need for TIF. 

National Register of Historic Places

The Keeline, northeast of 17th and Harney Streets, earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. The nomination said the building is architecturally significant to Omaha as an exceptional example of Georgian Revival architecture.

It was designed by John Latenser, who also was the local architect behind other civic and commercial buildings including the neighboring Douglas County Courthouse, the J.L. Brandeis and Sons Building, the Scottish Rite Cathedral and Central High School.

According to the nomination prepared by Martin Kluck, formerly of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, the flat-roofed, square building also represents Omaha’s prosperous commercial development of the era.

Many major structures were built during the “Golden Years” after the 1893 depression and through World War I, including the county courthouse.

Once the site of a house

The Keeline was a result of that growth, the nomination said. Before it was razed, the residence of Capt. Charles B. Ruston, vice president of the Omaha Street Railway Company and of Omaha Smelting Works, was originally on the site. It eventually sold to a man named Oscar Keeline, who demolished the house and erected the building known originally as Keeline Brick. 

Moylan said his team had been looking for a new project and was intrigued by the Keeline location. Shamrock has renovated several other downtown landmarks, including the historic Barker Building and the Paxton.

“The supply of downtown office space has diminished with many buildings converted to residential,” Moylan said. “We have confidence that demand will be strong for smaller offices.”

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.