New North Makerhood: An Insider’s Look

New North Makerhood: An Insider’s Look

The area in downtown Omaha north of TD Ameritrade Park was once a railroad center and a manufacturing hub. However, as the railroad industry experienced consolidation, and as focus turned to the development of downtown Omaha to the south, beautiful old buildings and warehouses once bustling with activity were vacated, and many began deteriorating. For many years, most of these buildings were vacant or under-utilized until a group of community leaders came together around a creative idea to bring people and businesses back to the neighborhood.

That idea started with Peter Kiewit Foundation director emerita Lyn Ziegenbein. As a longtime nonprofit executive, Lyn saw the opportunity to make the rundown district — an area highly visible to anyone driving into Omaha from Eppley Airfield — a warm, welcoming sight.

To begin exploring the possibilities, the Kiewit Foundation led the formation of an investor group called Future Forward, LLC along with a nonprofit entity that could accept donations to support neighborhood maintenance and amenities. Unlike a typical development focused on driving profits for investors, Future Forward is focused on community impact.

As the Kiewit Foundation found itself initiating a complex real estate development project, Lyn knew she needed to call on a trusted, experienced real estate professional to conduct initial research and advise on next steps. The project immediately resonated with Investors Realty’s R.J. Neary.

Lyn first started calling on R.J. to provide accurate market information for the neighborhood and R.J. offered to research the buildings’ owners, the current condition of each of the buildings and whether any were being used. What he discovered was that most of the buildings were vacant and owned by reluctant landlords. Some were in disrepair due to mismanagement or — worse yet — occupied by hoarder tenants.

With ten separate, disinterested building owners and no shared vision, the future would be bleak for the area without intervention. It became clear that not only would Future Forward’s initiative have the potential to revitalize a historic area and impact Omaha’s future, it was necessary.

Starting in 2009, and continuing over the next six years, R.J. helped Future Forward purchase 29 acres of land, 16 buildings and 175,000 square feet of building space.

As Future Forward began talking to people in the community about what Omaha needed, and businesses like Bench collaborative workshop became interested in the property, the investor group saw the potential for developing a community centered on arts and trades leading to the production of artisan, handmade goods. The community would create new jobs. It would offer affordable workspaces and studios to entrepreneurs, artists, makers and other creatives. It would be a place for residents and visitors to discover interesting events and activities. The vision: an active, vibrant neighborhood where arts, crafts and trades are nurtured, celebrated and supported by a walkable network of public spaces connecting a healthy mix of residential, industrial, commercial and public activities. It was no small task.

The district began a development plan for the New North Makerhood under a specific set of design requirements intended to promote and maintain a high quality of urban design and character of place. The goal is to restore and utilize each of the buildings.

Navigating the development of the neighborhood has not been easy. Obstacles have emerged as the community has taken shape and certain paths forward have resulted in dead ends. None of this came as much of a surprise to R.J.

“We are used to moving fast in the real estate industry, but this is a unique, long-term project,” he said. “We all knew that going into it, and we have moved forward in small, intentional steps with a plan for each stage of the development. We know our approach will result in the outcomes we are seeking towards improving the area and drawing people to it through creative use of space and opportunities for engagement.”

The IRI team is also used to solving problems. Old buildings and a lack of infrastructure to support the neighborhood’s new uses are two challenging aspects to the Makerhood. However, as businesses and nonprofits open and more people are working in and coming to the Makerhood — generating interest by other entrepreneurs and artists — the pace of the development is picking up speed.

Today, the vision for the Makerhood is being realized. The neighborhood is home to the Fashion Institute Midwest, the Omaha Land Bank, Bench, and Reclaimed Enterprises, a custom woodworking and design business. In August, HutchFEST held its third annual Midwest makers’ fair in the Makerhood featuring over 250 vendors from Omaha and across the Midwest as well as local food, drinks and live music. The event drew an estimated 6,000 people to the area. Hosting a large scale, maker-focused event run by local entrepreneurs is exactly what Lyn, R.J., and the Future Forward investors envisioned when they embarked on their journey.

Other signs of success are the recent announcements of two nearby developments — the Builder’s District surrounding Kiewit Corporation’s new headquarters at 15th and Mike Fahey Street, and Millwork Commons, a collaborative neighborhood focused on innovation and design, located directly to the west of the Makerhood. Fast-growing tech company Flywheel announced it will move into the Ashton Building at 13th and Nicholas Street in 2020.

“One of our primary goals with the Makerhood was to create an area that would attract developers because they know we have a plan and that the members of Future Forward are stakeholders in that plan,” R.J. said. “This area of Omaha will be completely transformed over the next seven to 10 years and it will provide a lot of new opportunities for people to grow with it.”

IRI is proud to play a role in the Makerhood. In addition to helping with the purchase of the buildings and land, our leasing agents and property managers have also been part of the team helping new and existing tenants. We look forward to continuing our work on the Makerhood and being a part of this neighborhood’s bright future.