It’s Been a Long Road…

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It was about 15 years ago that seeds were planted for an iconic western gateway to Omaha.

City officials at the time were preparing a master plan for developing suburbia. They envisioned a splashy flag-lined pedestrian bridge over West Dodge Road connecting future recreational, retail and residential areas. Eastbound travelers would get the message loud and clear: You’ve entered Omaha.

Meanwhile, a local real estate developer had just bought his first chunk of farmland around 192nd and West Dodge Road. Curt Hofer became intrigued with the gateway possibilities, and eventually amassed more than 200 acres from an assortment of property owners.

R&R Realty of Des Moines also saw potential, and laid claim on a separate 60 acres.

Fast forward to today, and the seeds have sprouted into City Council-approved plans for what could be $1.5 billion in office, commercial and residential projects on the southwest and southeast corners of 192nd and West Dodge.

The grand pedestrian overpass is not yet funded. But the pair of plans approved last month, if fully carried out, would transform existing green fields into the Hofer-led sprawl of villas, condos, restaurants, hotel rooms, businesses and trails called Avenue One.

Within that same tract would be two upscale office parks built by R&R and dubbed Fountain Ridge East and West.

Those south-of-Dodge projects, planned to take shape in phases, will join previous development on the intersection’s northern corners. Those are: the 216-acre Lawrence Youngman Lake and park area that opened in 2011 on the northwest quadrant, and the $120 million Methodist Women’s Hospital that opened a year earlier on the northeast corner.

To get to the point where commercial activity could start filling out the intersection was no small feat.

The private developers started submitting proposals to Omaha planners about six years ago. Buy-in and financial commitments were required from multiple governments, including the City of Omaha, Douglas County and the State of Nebraska.

A legislative bill unleashed state funding that will help reconfigure the key 192nd and West Dodge interchange to take on additional traffic flow.

The Omaha City Council approved an extra tax (to be levied on Avenue One patrons) that will help the lead developer raise millions to cover other infrastructure work.

For a sense of the time the project has taken, take a look at Hofer’s son, Jeff. He was 8 years old when his dad bought the first piece of gateway ground. Since then, Jeff has gotten bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked a few years in the finance field. Now he’s 25 years old and hired as development manager to help launch his father’s vision.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said the elder Hofer, who declined interviews until recently, after the city gave a final green light. “The hurdles were very unusual, and seemed insurmountable.”

Between Avenue One and the R&R office parks, an area about four times the size of Aksarben Village is to be transformed. That includes some familiar spots such as the former Junkstock grounds and old Sandlot Ridge baseball diamonds.

Developers say the construction will create an estimated 7,500 jobs, and, when running at full strength, the development site could generate more than 6,500 permanent jobs.

Here’s how the parts fit together:

To make the projects work, tens of millions of dollars had to be teed up to upgrade, carve out and revamp streets.

For the 192nd and West Dodge interchange, the state is to chip in nearly $17 million and the city, $4.2 million.

Hofer, city public works leaders and others helped nudge along that state contribution by lobbying state officials in 2016 to funnel funding to top economic-impact projects. That interchange reconstruction is set to begin in 2025.

Another $8.8 million is to come from the real estate developers involved to widen 192nd Street between West Dodge Road and Harney Street from two to six lanes plus turning lanes, said R&R’s Mike Homa. That effort is to start yet this year but won’t block through traffic.

Developers additionally will cover the cost of infrastructure and roadways created within project sites.

The enhanced employment area occupation tax that was approved without dissent by the City Council last month allows Avenue One investors to recoup up to $40 million of infrastructure investment via a tax on retailers and hotels in its boundaries. (That tax does not apply to R&R property, which is financing its portion in part through a sanitary improvement district, which taxes its property owners.)

Omaha Public Works Director Bob Stubbe said extraordinary coordination was required between the various governments and developers to pull off the future 192nd and West Dodge crossroads.

Said Homa: “It really took time to determine ways we could slice and dice these costs.”

Construction of R&R’s first 100,000-square-foot office building is slated to begin yet this year.

That structure, on the east side of 192nd Street, will rise even before any tenants have been secured.

“It’s been a long time coming and ownership wants to get it going,” said Homa, president of R&R’s Nebraska division.

Other competing office park sites have formed since 2013, when R&R first announced it would enter the Omaha market. But Homa said he and his team remain optimistic they’ll fill their space, given easy access to the sites and visibility along the popular Dodge corridor.

He said R&R is known regionally for its fountain features, collaborative spaces, growth options and other amenities for the upscale office user.

When completely built over multiple years, Fountain Ridge East would contain about 680,000 square feet of Class A office space, Homa said. Fountain Ridge West would include about 200,000 square feet of building space and specialize in medical tenants.

The investment is expected to total about $300 million, he said.

When fully built out — projections say that could take up to 20 years — the Avenue One venture by Hofer’s Jasper Stone Partners and Kansas City-based Block Real Estate Services could have a value of $1.2 billion.

All told, Hofer said, that would include 800,000 square feet of corporate and medical office space; 700,000 square feet of retail stores; 215 hotel rooms; 2,000 residential units; 26 acres of green space; a public plaza; and 6 miles of walking and biking trails.

Ground work already has started on the first phase, which is to deliver 458 multifamily units, 628,000 square feet of retail and office space.

Hofer said he has started contract negotiations with some restaurants and other potential tenants. Tenant demand will help dictate when that initial phase gets done, but the projected $262 million in additional value would start generating property and sales tax for local government coffers right away.

“It’s further evidence of interest and confidence in the city as a place to invest and develop,” said City Councilman Brinker Harding.

Meanwhile, Hofer is still pushing for what he considers to be the crown jewel, a pedestrian bridge over West Dodge to link new development on the southwest corner to Youngman Lake and park area on the northwest.

“It’s critical for these neighborhoods,” Hofer said. His team has committed $250,000 for the connector piece.

Brook Bench, city parks director, called the idea awesome and neat but said a pedestrian overpass likely would reach the multimillion-dollar range and take multiple funding sources. To date, no funds for it are in the Omaha budget, though the city is on track to finish walking trails around Youngman Lake.

Bench said the West Dodge pedestrian bridge would make more sense after homes and other people-attracting anchor developments are in place on the south side of the highway.

Former City Planning Director Steve Jensen, now in private consulting practice, recalled City Hall discussions some 15 years ago favoring such a bridge as part of a welcome mat to western Omaha.

He said the 192nd and West Dodge intersection, overall, is shaping up as an ideal western gateway that also benefits from the HWS Cleveland Boulevard system running through it.

Though the southern corners took time, Jensen expects the coordination to lead to an attractive hub on what he viewed as the last largely undeveloped intersection along West Dodge.

Omaha Planning Director Dave Fanslau said, “It really is the last large mixed-use center in our jurisdiction that will probably get developed in this magnitude.”

As for R&R, Homa said the office park developer is ready to “sprint.”

Hofer said he was glad he stayed in the “marathon” and didn’t sell his land to big chain store or car lot interests.

“We weren’t going to settle for the big ugly,” he said. “We were going to figure it out.”

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