I stumbled across this article the other day, from December 1987. It's from the New York Times, and it's all about the potential demolition of the historic Omaha district Jobber's Canyon, an urban community that was essential to Omaha's growth, to make way for Con Agra's proposed downtown HQ.
Con Agra got their way. The city agreed to a situation where around a dozen buildings from the 1870s were removed from the national historic registry in order to make way for a corporate park.
I'd like to repeat that, because I don't often get the chance to write something so ridiculous:
Omaha removed a part of the city that made Omaha, Omaha in order to put the HQ of a processed food corporation in its most prime downtown riverfront location.
Oh it's just so fun though.
Omaha agreed to remove over a dozen examples of late 19th century architecture and western culture sites to put the offices of the company that makes Kid Cuisine right along the downtown riverfront, and also made it so no other business could build on or occupy that space.
When I talk to friends and colleagues who are architects or work with city planners, they say that the Jobber's Canyon "upgrade" stands as a gleaming example of what not to do with a historic neighborhood. They teach students about Omaha's poor decision in universities.
Again, I'd like to repeat that one:
Future creative professionals are taught in college that Omaha makes bad decisions regarding its own city planning and historic preservation.
Now, Con Agra is moving to Chicago. Why? Experts say they want to tap into a younger, hipper pool of talent. Here's a tip for retaining or enticing young talent in the future - do not demolish culture, do not re-zone history, do not replace character with corporate parks. That was a horrible decision.
Omaha - you took away a dozen cool historic buildings and left only one building that only one client would want, as it was designed to fit their very specific needs, and now they're leaving town. The decision Omaha made in 1987 has been halting the city's growth potential ever since. Imagine being an architect in Boston, a city known for its historic architecture, and reading about Omaha's decision to remove Jobber's Canyon. Would that architect ever consider a job at an Omaha firm? How about any creative professional that values culture over corporations? How about now, when all of this is being pulled back into the light, and the new chapter is that Big Corp is leaving, making the downtown Omaha riverfront, what should be the highlight of the city, a ghost town? The local talent pool stays shallow because of bad decisions like this.
Hindsight is always sharp, and if we had a time machine, surely we could right wrongs like this one. But we don't. So, what should be done about all of this?
Something very, very right. Something that puts the city on the globe. Omaha is a keystone of western culture with a grip of Fortune 500s (-1), economic stability, a central US location that's easy to get to from any angle, affordable living, and the city isn't crowded yet. On paper, the data points are enticing, but it takes more than that. You want talent? For once, do something right. Not right as in make the commute to and from west Omaha a few minutes quicker by spending millions to put a road on top of a road. SMH. I'm saying tap into what makes Omaha, Omaha, and make that shit WORK!
Off the top of my head: Union Pacific's HQ is here, and we have a city more populous with a larger footprint than many other "developed" cities with good public transport. Put a public rail system in for the love of whatever you think is holy! People will use it, air quality will improve, people will read more, neighborhoods near the rail will develop economically, culture will develop because people will meet new people daily, have new experiences in the morning, then again in the evening, people will become more friendly and compassionate to one another, and the city just might start to attract the sort of talent it's been wanting to attract but is afraid to take too confident of a step towards. Take that step, not for the betterment of a corporation, but for the betterment of the city's soul, which is in need of a little civic salvation.
You took away a huge chunk of local history to make room for a corporation, and now they're leaving you for hipper pastures. Ironically, you might have slightly hipper pastures if you didn't make such awful compromises for the big corporation to begin with.
Your move, Omaha. Make this right.
header photo: Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission