Omaha: What buildings would you tear down?

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Centre PompidouOver the weekend, the Financial Times ran a piece that gathered correspondents throughout the world and asked them to name a building they would like to see torn down. Usually the answer came in the form of buildings that wAsahi Buildingere designed hopelessly out of context with their surroundings. The answers ranged from the brutalist Soviet embassy in Havana which spoils the surrounding Spanish colonial treasures, to the garish Centre Pompidou in Paris, Rem Koolhaas’ “Pants” building in Beijing, the Asahi Brewing Company’s “golden turd” in Tokyo. The “Walkie Talkie” building in London, which recently had to undergo special facade treatments to reduce the glare that had caused dashboards to melt on cars below, also gets a mention.

It got me thinking. If I could wield a wrecking ball in Omaha, what would I demolish? My list would probably be short on buildings, but long on poorly planned infrastructure. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be putting together a top 10 list. Please send me your suggestions. I’d love to hear them. Here are a few items for today:

1. Central Park Mall – Gene Leahy Mall Gene Leahy Mall

Located from 10th to 14th Streets and bounded on the north by Douglas Street and the south by Farnam Street, the 9.6 acre public space was introduced to Omaha among a flurry of ill-conceived 1970’s-era revitalization projects around the country. It features a lagoon, symbolizing the City’s connection to the Missouri River, surrounded by a walking path and sitting areas. The problem with this mall is really obvious – it was built below street level. A huge mistake.

Rather than integrating an inviting public green space into the street grid, it attempts to be an oasis for City-dwellers to escape the bustle of surrounding streets. Unfortunately, placing the park below grade makes it an isolated and dark place that is the haven of homeless people and a threatening place to anyone seeking to avoid crime. Who really wants to visit the Mall at dusk when the drunk teens begin to take over the dark corners? Aside from the holiday lighting, there is nothing inviting about this dredged-up hole of earth.

The lagoon should be filled in. The park should be raised to street level and a nice public lawn should be installed for the use of the burgeoning downtown population in need of a space to kick the soccer ball, toss a football, and walk with children. It might add an amphitheater for performances. It would dramatically help to integrate the Holland Center with the Old Market.

Yes, renovations will be made to the Mall soon. But it will still be a depressing depression and a waste of a huge opportunity.

2. The Hilton – Red Lion – Doubletree Hotel at 16th and CapitolDoubleTree

This brutalist tower was Omaha’s signature hotel for many years. It’s top floor dining facility was once paneled with mirrors and mahogany-carved motifs of corn stalks. I think the odd steer could be found among the wooden foliage. I haven’t been up there in years, so it may have been remodeled.

The problem isn’t the hotel itself. Yes, its architecturally dated, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with a brutalist concrete structure here and there. They had their day and lets take them in the context of the designs of the early 1970’s. I can forgive the architects of this scratchy gray piece of pavement with windows. It was probably cool at the time.

What isn’t cool is how the site was planned and what it did to the neighborhood. The lobby side is raised above grade, so any hope of guests mingling with pedestrians is nil. That was the attraction of old urban hotels –  a gent could walk in off the street for a shoe shine and a haircut and admire the passers-by. Ladies could take an afternoon tea in the lounge. Livestock traders made deals over bourbon and cigars. But that’s impossible when the lobby is up a ramp on the second floor. I’m sure its effective at keeping the homeless away.

However, the front of the building pales in comparison to the atrocity on the north side. 16th Street was once a major north-south thoroughfare that passed through downtown. Instead, the hotel was dropped in the center of the street and cut off North Omaha from the rest of downtown. The Capitol Street side is devoid of any life – just gray concrete and service doors – as cars heading south on 16th Street have to hopelessly decide whether to shamble east or west. The area to the north was cut off from commerce, and it has taken 50 years for anything to occur in the wasteland it created.

One can’t help but think that the planning location of the hotel was a deliberate barrier to North Omaha. After the turmoil of the late 1960’s, downtown Omaha probably wanted to forget the race riots and strife of the north side. A giant monolithic wall of concrete was an effective barrier, but it was a planning disaster.

At the risk of sounding like a complete cynic and crank, its only fair to salute some planning decisions that have gone the right way. Today, I congratulate the 10th Street Bridge in front of the Durham Western Heritage Museum.

Designers could have gone with a plain concrete span with traditional OPPD “snake-head10th Street Bridge” street lights. Instead, they opted for a monumental structure reminiscent of Omaha’s golden railroad age. Embossed concrete elements remind one of some of the finest WPA bridge projects of the New Deal Era (the old L Street Bridge over the Missouri River comes to mind) and the historic lighting is top notch. It allows for parking and impressive views of the City when heading north.

Some may complain that its elevation is a little too high and blocks the facades of the Old Market Lofts to a degree, and they would be right. But overall, this bridge is an excellent tribute to the City’s heritage.