$46 million ‘Digs’ project fuels debate about parking squeeze in Omaha’s urban core

Developer foresees minimal parking as boost to streetcar, but neighbors fret

By: - August 1, 2023 5:45 am

Dana Rose, a homeowner across the street from the proposed apartments, and Pat O’Donnell, who just rehabbed a house a few doors from Rose. The Digs would rise on 1.5 acres behind where the two are standing. The corner yellow house and a few others are to be demolished. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Pat O’Donnell says he’s all for development, especially in his childhood stomping grounds where walking, biking and newer housing is replacing shady activity that once was the norm. 

The Omaha native loves watching seats fill up in the trendy new corner coffee shop, The Mill at 31st and Leavenworth Streets, and welcomes other commercial enterprises reviving the corridor southwest of downtown Omaha.

The Mill coffee shop is among new businesses and apartments on the Leavenworth corridor around 31st Street. The area is becoming more popular in large part because of its proximity to the job-magnet University of Nebraska Medical Center and to downtown. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

He even had a hand in the shift, moving back some 25 years ago to the home he grew up in and revamping multiple other properties to rent out in the evolving inner-city area.

But O’Donnell said he is drawing the line on the latest proposal by a private development company to provide only 147 parking spaces for a 188-unit apartment complex with 239 bedrooms.

He is among area critics who fear the $46 million Digs apartments, as proposed for southeast of 31st and Marcy Streets, will leave existing neighborhood residents scrounging for a parking spot along already jammed side streets. 

City planners, on the other hand, support the minimal parking ratio, saying greater density and dependence on public transportation is paramount to a successful urban core in Nebraska’s largest city. They believe many of the Digs’ apartment-dwellers will forgo cars and choose to walk the six to eight blocks to catch either the planned streetcar or the ORBT, Omaha’s rapid bus transit system.

The fate of the Digs — which seeks $4.1 million in public tax-increment financing — rests now in the hands of the Omaha City Council, which is to vote Tuesday on the plan by Uptown Properties LLC.

But on a broader level, the controversy provides a glimpse, proponents and opponents agree, into the growing pains and debate likely to multiply as Omaha further redefines its urban core and in 2026 turns on the ignition of the $300 million-plus modern streetcar.

“I’m just afraid they’re being overly optimistic,” said O’Donnell, who does not see the area around 31st and Marcy becoming a car-free haven any time soon. “They’re using this neighborhood as a guinea pig, an experiment.”

Marcy Street has parking on one side currently. The proposed Digs apartments would rise on an assemblage of properties to the left. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

City Planning Director Dave Fanslau does not share the skepticism, and says it’s also a matter of preparing for more dense and vertical growth in a metropolitan city running out of green fields and westward space to develop.

“How are we going to continue to add population to build our tax base? To add to our workforce? To continue to attract people to come to this city? It’s not just about an apartment project,” Fanslau said. “People have to think of it in a much bigger view.”

The ‘TOD’ plan

Key to the Digs debate, and the Planning Department’s support for the project, are relatively new “TOD” policies for Transit Oriented Development. They came in response to what then was the biggest public transit project the region had seen in decades, the $30 million Metro Transit-led ORBT.

With millions of dollars in economic development projected around the ORBT path, which stretches from downtown to Westroads along Dodge Street, the city wanted to craft future land policies to ensure the area made the most of the investment. Numerous community forums were held to gain input before the TOD plan won City Council approval in 2020. 

TOD, among other things, allows less than the standard number of parking stalls for new apartment sites that sprout within six blocks of the ORBT route. Fanslau said that “walkshed” distance is based on the national standard.

Though the Digs actually sits about 140 feet outside of the TOD zone, Fanslau said, it was close enough in the department’s view. Plus, he said, he expects city officials eventually to extend the boundaries southward to adjust to the streetcar route, which would put the Digs campus within the zone.

If TOD guidelines were not in play, a minimum of 282 parking spaces would be required at the Digs project site, according to city documents. Under the plan supported by city planning staff, the Digs development team would have to provide about half that number.

John Heine, a neighborhood homeowner who also developed the commercial corner where the Mill coffee shop sits, can’t recall an urban core project he ever opposed — until now. His objection to the Digs focuses on parking, noting in an email to the City Council that many area houses lack garages and driveways.

Looking through the outdoor patio of The Mill coffee shop toward 31st and Marcy Streets site of the proposed Digs apartments. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

He mapped out the route from the Digs site to a streetcar stop. “I’d respectfully disagree with the idea that people in Omaha will not need a car if the streetcar is a half mile away,” he wrote.

Heine said that other urban core districts, such as Blackstone near 38th and Farnam Streets, and the new Brickline apartments area at 10th and Harney Streets, have more parking options for tenants. 

In the Blackstone neighborhood, and within the Brickline complex, the City of Omaha is paying to build parking facilities. At Brickline, apartment-dwellers get dibs on leasing spots but the 720-stall city garage will be open to the public. The Blackstone structure is to contain a few hundred city-owned public parking stalls. 

Michael Carter, attorney for developer Uptown Properties, said the Digs team is not worried about filling the apartments. He said the target audience is young professionals ages 22 to 32, likely working in the midtown or downtown area.

Many in that grouping don’t want the expense or environmental concerns of a car, Carter said. And besides bicycles and regular city buses, he said, they also tap ride-hailing services such as Uber to get around. 

“It’s tough for us to get our heads around, I agree with that, with the parking. But it is an urban area,” he told the City Council at a recent hearing. “We don’t want everybody to own a car. That’s what the urban core is trying to move away from.”

Council members Juanita Johnson and Danny Begley (Begley’s district includes the project site), both have said they plan to vote against the plan.

The Digs apartments would span 1.5 acres southeast of the 31st and Marcy Streets intersection, shown at the top left corner. (Courtesy of Uptown Properties LLC)

Johnson cited concerns of neighbors who worry whether they and their visitors would have nearby parking. 

Begley said he understands the need to build density in the urban core, but he wants a “better mix” for the area.

“This location doesn’t seem like a good fit to me,” said Begley.

Councilman Don Rowe was undecided when the council last met about the project. “I am all for higher density and I’m all for developing the urban core, but I want to make sure that it works.”

Councilwoman Aimee Melton said she was having a hard time believing that, in Omaha, “that many people are not going to have cars.”

“My fear is if we start doing more and more of these … If we start doing this all over and we don’t see people giving up their cars … this whole neighborhood is going to be in a whole lot of hurt.”

Demolition of now-vacant houses

As outlined in city documents, the Digs project would require demolition of four single-family houses on the 1.5-acre 31st and Marcy site to make way for two apartment buildings of four and five stories. Most parking would be in a lower ground parking structure, with some surface and on-street dedicated spots.

Market-rate rents would run from about $2,000 for a 900-square-foot unit with two bedrooms, to $1,250 for a 525-square-foot, one-bedroom dwelling. Construction would wrap up at the close of 2025, just prior to the planned 2026 start of streetcar rides.

O’Donnell, who has lived in the area for a total of about 45 years off and on, stood near the proposed 188-unit apartment site on a recent day and chatted with Dana Rose, who bought her house there in 2009.

Pat O’Donnell, a businessman who grew up in the 31st and Leavenworth area, moved away and returned to live about 25 years ago. He and family members own several houses in the area. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Dana Rose, an educator who owns a home across from the proposed apartments. She has a driveway but says parking around her is at a premium already. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Driving her decision back then, said Rose, was an alluring price. At that time, the area had changed from the more family-oriented atmosphere  O’Donnell knew as a kid to a more sketchy scene that drew frequent law-enforcement attention.

O’Donnell said his eight siblings thought he was “nuts” to move back to their childhood home.

But the last couple of decades have seen an upward swing, he and Rose said.

Pedestrian traffic has increased and young families and health care workers and students  are filling new housing, O’Donnell said. Much of the draw can be attributed to the area’s proximity to a resurging downtown and the job-producing University of Nebraska Medical Center. Still, O’Donnell said, he can’t imagine neighbors cutting personal cars out of their routine.

Digs developer Steven Held thinks otherwise, and he told council members that limited parking goes hand in hand with Omaha’s streetcar and urban core vision.

Said Held: “You probably have to make parking more difficult so that more people are going to use the streetcar.”


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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.