After receiving unanimous approval from the Omaha City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 5, Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA), in conjunction with the City of Omaha and Downtown Riverfront Trust, has begun construction on the Gene Leahy Mall downtown, starting a $300 million renovation project.
The project is called the “Riverfront Revitalization Project,” and according to their website, their mission is “to unify community through a thoughtful, amenity-rich open space anchored by the Missouri riverfront.”
A national team of experts, led by OJB Landscape Architecture, are pioneering this project that includes the areas in and around the Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park and Lewis and Clark Landing.
According to a press release from the Office of Mayor Jean Stothert, the highlights of this renovation project include raising parts of Gene Leahy Mall to street level, a lawn and pavilion for performances and events, a dog park, a sculpture garden, a playground, a restaurant and a potential third slide (as the popular slides will remain).
These features are in the Gene Leahy Mall area alone.The Heartland of America Park will include an amphitheater, botanical gardens, a rollerblading and ice-skating ribbon and a park building for event rentals, offices and security.
The Lewis and Clark Landing will feature a two-acre playground, sport courts for volleyball, basketball and pickleball, an urban beach, a marina, a concert space and a future discovery pavilion.
Lastly, the entire plan includes an elevated promenade at the edge of the Missouri River from Heartland of America Park to the Breakers, providing both a connection to the riverfront trail system and a safe space for biking, walking and jogging.
“MECA has an established history of working with the City of Omaha and philanthropic leaders on major construction projects,” Mayor Stothert said in the press release.
“This [agreement to the project] provides management of the park during construction and the important long-term activation to provide the entertainment and leisure activities that will make these parks a destination for Omaha residents and visitors.”
MECA also supervised the construction of the CHI Health Center and TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, along with currently managing both facilities.
On OJB’s website, the managing principal, Kyle Fiddelke, said, “The approval of the Master Plan is a game changer for the City of Omaha. The project will spur economic development and bring business back downtown, and in turn, spur additional residential development on both sides of the river. This could be a catalyst for a whole new chapter in Omaha history.”
The project on the Omaha side consists of approximately 90 acres, starting on 14th Street between Douglas and Farnam streets and reaching all the way down the river to the National Park Service office on Riverfront Drive.
According to Katie Bassett, vice president of parks at MECA, the plan is focused on citizen immersion.
“The overall vision is to make room for family events, opportunities for community engagement and better access to the riverfront, and places for people to really go and enjoy the space and activities, making the three very individual parks very cohesive together,” Bassett said.
In addition, Bassett mentioned the “drastic visual difference” the renovation will provide for the city’s aesthetic.
“We really see this, thanks to a lot of forward-thinking people in Omaha, as an attraction to bring people into Omaha and keep the talent in young individuals in Omaha now,” Bassett said.
She referenced a quote from the mayor, that “great cities have great parks.” She said this is something they truly believe, with the only downfall being the inconvenience of construction.
Bassett and her team also want to be very transparent about the financial aspect of the master plan. She said that from the project’s $50 million price tag, 25 percent of the total cost will come from the City of Omaha through lease-purchase bonds allocated in the Capital Improvement Plan over three years (2019, 2020 and 2021), which will not increase taxes.
The remaining 75 percent is coming from the philanthropic community, including the Downtown Riverfront Trust, a private nonprofit created to collect funds for construction and activation of the parks.
“What makes this very unique from a lot of other park projects across the nation is that the majority of the funds that are being used for this are being donated by our philanthropic community,” Bassett said. “It’s great to have a philanthropic community continue to make our city a great place to live and work.”
Kristyna Engdahl, director of communications for MECA, said that the project is scheduled for overall completion in late 2023, but the park will reopen in phases.
The earliest amenities open to the public will be those located in the Gene Leahy Mall section of the revitalization. They are roughly scheduled to open in early 2022.
The rest of the amenities will open in phases beginning in 2023.
“Just in general, as MECA, we’re very excited to be a part of this project,” Bassett said. In addition to operating CHI and TD Ameritrade, she added, “We’re excited to have another piece to our city-owned interests.”