NU Regents to vote on innovation hub project that expands UNMC campus

Old steel castings plant dating to 1906 to be repurposed

By: - September 26, 2022 5:45 am

The “Catalyst” project west of Saddle Creek Road would expand the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus and be a business hub for innovators in health care. (Courtesy of APMA and GreenSlate Development)

OMAHA — A favorable vote this Friday would trigger full-throated transformation of an old steel mill operation into the Catalyst, a $60 million entrepreneurial tech hub meant to expand the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus. 

Various enterprises are to be housed at the retrofitted, enlarged and infilled structure west of Saddle Creek Road, including new branches of UNeMed and UNeTech, which help spark health care startups.

Atrium of the Catalyst, which is to be a hub for businesses seeking new breakthroughs and patents related to health care. (Courtesy of APMA and GreenSlate Development)

UNMC is to own an anchor chunk — about a quarter — of the Catalyst’s 160,000 square feet or so of business and office space. The medical center also owns the land underneath it all.

Green light to construction

So the vote to be cast Sept. 30 by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents is needed to launch major construction of the redevelopment vision that’s been years in the making. (Cleanup, site preparation and design work has been ongoing.)

More specifically, said an NU spokesperson, the Regents’ action during their meeting in Kearney would approve final details such as the ground lease, ownership arrangement and $29 million in UNMC costs.

“The Catalyst project will transition the Saddle Creek campus from industry to innovation,” says a statement prepared for the Regents by UNMC and architect Alley Poyner Macchietto.

“The redevelopment is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to symbolically take a keystone of Omaha’s 20th century heavy industry and reinvigorate it into a cornerstone of Omaha’s 21st century healthcare industry.”

The Catalyst development team foresees the new “innovation-centric space” fueling further growth of Omaha’s medical industry by attracting researchers, inventors and investors to the former Omaha Steel Works tract, built in the early 1900s.

The Catalyst project is to house various tenants and the UNMC’s “Innovation hub.” (Courtesy of GreenSlate and APMA)

History-filled site

The steel plant in younger years helped build the State Capitol; produced integral parts for the railroad and World War II efforts. Some know the area also for the wood shop that operated at the site after the steel business moved to Wahoo.

The Catalyst project — which also is to include a food hall and market, plus event space — is key, but it’s only a portion of a larger, roughly 25-acre site west of Saddle Creek Road that’s expanding the UNMC footprint. 

An administrative tower complex spanning about 350,000 square feet and reaching as high as 17 floors is planned southwest of Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Street. It is to house work and office space for clinical faculty as well as shops and retail bays.

The roof of that facility’s low-rise parking garage is to bridge east over Saddle Creek Road, serving as a landscaped pedestrian crossing that links to the existing UNMC campus.

A UNMC official has said that when the broader redevelopment site is built out in a decade or two, it could contain 1.75 million square feet of new building space for the medical center.

Hotel rooms and housing also could sprout on the public-private redevelopment site, which is surrounded by many private real estate ventures developed separately but spurred by UNMC’s growth boom over the last several years.

Health-tech ecosystem

The private development team leading the 3-acre Catalyst initiative pairs Omaha’s GreenSlate Development and Denver’s Koelbel and Co.

Restaurants also will be at the Catalyst structure, designed to spark creativity of medical-related tenants. (Courtesy of APMA and GreenSlate)

GreenSlate’s Jay Lund and Matt Dwyer said the goal is a health care and technology “ecosystem” where like-minded tenants congregate and stimulate new ideas, ventures and patents that advance medicine. They see physical structure and environment as a big lure. 

“You can’t replicate these old structures in new construction,” Lund said. “Weaving that into the new architecture and design is going to provide a building like no other.”

He said the local Catalyst is estimated to be a $60 million investment overall, and is modeled after Koelbel’s Catalyst project in Denver’s RiNo (River North) District. The Denver project was designed to be an epicenter of advancements in wellness. 

Planning documents presented earlier to the City of Omaha said the Catalyst is expected to bring up to 670 full-time jobs to the area, about half of which would be relocated and the rest newly created from expansions and startups. The city has approved the project for $8.1 million in public tax-increment financing.

Big winner

UNeMed and UNeTech would be moving from outdated space elsewhere to the UNMC-owned space within the Catalyst and would be joined by other tenants. 

Michael Dixon, CEO of UNeMed, expects Omaha will see more national entrepreneurs drawn to the midtown campus and collectively more contributions to medicine. He said the project should also grow the local tax base.

“Ultimately the big winner is Omaha and our biotechnology ecosystem,” said Dixon. 

The Catalyst project west of Saddle Creek Road is to house techie and entrepreneurial businesses that will advance the UNMC mission. (Courtesy of GreenSlate and APMA)


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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.