The rest of ‘The RiverFront’ project now open in Omaha, finally offering a ‘return to the river’

By: - August 18, 2023 2:53 pm

An extension of Farnam Street in downtown Omaha now extends to a pier overlooking the Missouri River. It’s part of the new riverfront parks system dedicated on Friday. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Toes were wiggling Friday in the sand of downtown Omaha’s new urban beach. 

Kids climbed slide towers; people checked out the skating rink.

And in one of the more dramatic changes to Omaha’s riverfront, a newly built pier extended Farnam Street to overlook the Missouri River, allowing the public an up-close look at the Mighty Mo.

Those and other final pieces of a roughly $400 million overhaul of downtown parks and amenities — collectively called “The RiverFront”  — opened Friday amid fanfare and visitors. It was billed as a major state tourist attraction that should help recruit job talent.

Visitors during the grand opening of “The RiverFront” park development in downtown Omaha get a look at the Missouri River (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Not lost, especially on longtime Omahans, was that the newly revealed additions to the Lewis & Clark Landing and Heartland of America Park get the public the closest it’s ever been to a vision city planners imagined more than a half-century ago.

That is, a “return to the river.”

Friday, philanthropist Ken Stinson, a key fund-raiser for the now-completed tri-park revamp, recalled at a press conference early discussions about this project some seven years ago.

Much like the earlier set of city leaders who decades ago didn’t quite see their vision fully materialize, Stinson said the more recent team led by him and Mogens Bay wanted to “recapture” parts of the riverfront.

“It’s the completion of an iconic transformation of downtown Omaha — and a much awaited return to the river,” Stinson, former executive of Peter Kiewit, said during Friday’s grand opening.

He called the revamp of more than 70 acres — which includes a new science museum — a “masterpiece” of architecture, engineering and construction enabled by several Omaha firms and partners.

The redesigned Gene Leahy Mall was the first of the three parks to open last year.

Looking west, the Farnam Street promenade connects to the Farnam Pier that overlooks the Missouri River at The RiverFront tri-park project site. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Bay, former chairman at Valmont Industries, and Mayor Jean Stothert also spoke during Friday’s ceremony.

Bay said the results make Omaha the “envy” of cities much larger than Omaha.

 “We don’t have mountains, we don’t have oceans,” he said.

But, Bay added, private-public partnerships such as the one that rebuilt the downtown parks have lifted the city’s profile. The overhaul was paid mostly with private donor funds.

Bay and Stothert said the park overhaul also is a catalyst for other redevelopment in the urban core, including various apartments, the $600 million Mutual of Omaha office tower, a $300 million-plus modern streetcar and more.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting opened up the new park pieces to scores of people waiting to explore.

Sierra Roseby and Cornelius Levering, instructors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, were among them.

“I can’t wait to bring my students and my family to see what Omaha has transformed into,” said Roseby.

Levering said he was impressed by it all, and especially the skating ribbon and the Farnam Pier overlooking the river.

“It’s a marvel,” he said.

Returning Omaha to its river town roots was a vision of Omaha’s first planning director, Alden Aust, who in the 1970s reimagined the riverfront with a “Marina City” and a park that stretched to the Missouri River.

(Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

While that mini city on a cove never came to be, then-Mayor Gene Leahy ran with the “return to the river” theme. With help from business and civic leaders, the city created a downtown renewal plan that had as its anchor the then-new Central Park Mall.

That mall’s waterway and park (later renamed the Gene Leahy Mall) did not open up the riverfront in interactive ways that had been earlier imagined, though.

The latest overhaul offers numerous features that allow the public to feel the return to the river, said Stinson. There are multiple areas for people to picnic and play. There’s a lakeside amphitheater, a zip line, volleyball and other outdoor sports courts.

The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which is managing the parks, will offer various programming for the public.

Said Stinson: “The reality is even more tremendous than what the vision was six, seven years ago.”

A stroll through The RiverFront


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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.