Historic building threatened by downtown development

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PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM MCLAUGHLIN
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM MCLAUGHLIN

Phil Brown

Opinion Editor

Much of this section in the past month or so has been dedicated to discussing the impact of ConAgra Foods’ decision to relocate their headquarters from Omaha to Chicago.

Given the extreme measures the city took to accommodate the company back in the late 1980s, which included destroying a record six square blocks of historic buildings, and the extreme number of jobs that will be cut as a result of the move, which amounts to 1000 new unemployed, it’s natural that the city reeled a bit from the news.

Everyone knows somebody who works for ConAgra, it seems, so everyone in some way is affected.

Another aspect of the news discussed in this section has been the negative impact the initial destruction and construction of ConAgra’s headquarters had on the city’s development. This negative impact will be felt for decades to come, as ConAgra won’t be leaving the Omaha buildings completely.

This makes recent developments in another corporate downtown development saga very troubling.
HDR Inc., another Nebraska-founded company with a substantial chunk of Omaha’s workforce, is sizing up a move to downtown Omaha.

Founded in 1917, the architectural and engineering firm has been in Oma-ha for nearly century. The city is scrambling to accommodate the firm, behavior reminiscent of the old Jobber’s Canyon saga, where ConAgra essentially held the city hostage with the threat of moving its jobs.

“We want HDR to build down-town, and we want to do every-thing we can to get them to build downtown” said Mayor Jean Stothert to the Omaha World-Herald.

There is still the looming possibility that downtown historical buildings will be destroyed to make room for the new headquarters. One plan that has been proposed, and one that seems to be popular with HDR, is that the new world head-quarters will be built on the current sight of a parking lot owned 80 percent by the Omaha Performing Arts Society and 20 percent by the city.

However, while the city is more than willing to let the company build on the lot, OPAS is demanding that an equal amount of parking be provided to them by the city if HDR is to build on their lot.

The plan OPAS seems fixated on is leveling a four-building section of land east of the Holland Performing Arts Center, a section that includes the Christian Sprecht Building, and an Italian Renaissance Revival-style building designed in 1884. The building is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, and an Omaha landmark. It’s also unique in that it’s the only building in the state with a cast-iron facade. The heirloom building would face the ax if OPAS had their way.

To be fair, HDR itself is not taking the role of a Con Agra-style corporate terrorist. Their efforts are focused solely on moving within Omaha, absconding with the precious jobs is not on the table.

“This community has been good to us,” HDR CEO George Little told the World-Herald. “I was not going to play a negotiation game knowing that we would not move. I didn’t think it was the right thing
to do.”

Omaha Performing Arts, it seems, is more than willing to step into the role. While the mayor claimed the group had been presented with multiple options for parking that didn’t include destroying a century-old national landmark, OPAS seems to stubbornly cling to the plan of ravishing Omaha’s history. It seems this isn’t the first time OPAS has attempted to destroy the building.

Back in 2001, the Society came very close to flattening the structure, and had the city on their side. The City Council approved a plan that would’ve caused the same block to be destroyed to make room for a new performing arts center. But the building was saved when OPAS donors pressured the society to halt developments.

OPAS’ vendetta against the Chris-tian Sprecht building continues af-ter over a decade, however, and if the city doesn’t drop its, “anything for HDR” attitude, they may suc-ceed.

The city can’t afford to sacrifice another historical building for a corporation, especially when that corporation is dedicated to remaining in the city regardless. The city has nothing more precious than its heritage, its history, and its very soul.

It’s very disturbing that Omaha seems to have learned nothing from the still-fresh wounds of ConAgra’s abandonment.

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