City Council approves cell tower, talks HDR redevelopment agreement


February 10th, 2016

Omaha City Seal in the Legislative Chambers

Omaha City Seal in the Legislative Chambers

Omaha City Council members heard some stern words during yesterday’s Council meeting. Many Omahans are angry over how the City is handling a proposal by architecture firm HDR to move its headquarters downtown.

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting revolved around building new things.

The first new thing would be a Fresh Time Grocery Store in West Omaha’s Tivoli sub-division.

Tim Sanwick is the manager of a Hampton Inn which neighbors the site of the proposed grocery store. He said while he doesn’t object to building the store, he has concerns.

“Currently in the latest design, the loading dock and presumably the refuse area is going to be right at the entrance of our hotel,” Sanwick said to the Council.

Sanwick said guests of the Hampton Inn, which include business and leisure travelers, would not want to look out their hotel room window and down into a trash bin.

 Councilman Franklin Thompson empathized with Sanwick, and suggested a two-week layover of the plan so a solution could be found. The Council voted unanimously to pass that layover.

Next, the Council discussed building a new cell phone tower in West Omaha, on the property of Concordia Christian School, near 156th and Fort Streets. SBA Communications Corporation is building the tower and said Verizon Wireless will use it to bolster its data connectivity in the area. SBA proposed building a cell tower on nearby Stone Creek Golf Course a year ago, but stiff opposition at the time forced SBA to seek alternate sites.

Lori Terkelsen’s 7th Grade son attends Concordia Christian School, and said SBA should keep looking for a different site.

“There’s no dire need for this,” Terkelsen said. “I know there have been some studies that say there’s no (health) risk, but I think we all know that no one can say that for sure. We don’t know what the long term affects will be 30 years from now. And I already have family members with cancer and I don’t believe it’s worth the risk.”

 Councilwoman Aimee Melton said building the cell tower would be a great way for the school to earn extra money through the lease agreement—and added many Omaha public schools already do.

As far as the health concerns, Melton said talking on a cell phone appears to pose a greater health risk than proximity to a cell tower.

Council members unanimously approved the plan to build the tower.

Council members spent the majority of their meeting, however, listening to residents during a public hearing on a redevelopment agreement between architectural firm HDR Incorporated and the Omaha Performing Arts Society.

Under the agreement, the City would use $10 million worth of redevelopment bonds to buy the land just east of OPA’s Holland Center. The City would then give that land to OPA, under the assumption OPA would in-turn give HDR ownership of the Holland Center’s parking lot.

HDR said moving its headquarters downtown would bring about 1000 jobs to the area, and after $20 million in TIF financing had been paid off, the new building would add significantly to the City’s property tax revenues.

 But the site at 11th and Douglas Streets includes three buildings many residents think are foundational to Omaha’s history—the Albine Building, the historic Specht Building, and the Happy Hollow Coffee Building.

Critics said the future of these buildings could be in jeopardy if OPA decides to demolish them as part of its Holland Center expansion project.

But Cassie Paben with the Mayor’s office told Council members critics of the plan shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what will or won’t happen.

Paben said, “This agreement does not authorize or approve any specific project plans for this site as no such plans have been formalized. This agreement does not authorize the demolition of any buildings. This agreement does not, in any manner, address the landmark status of the Christian Specht building, meaning it does not rescind the landmark status that it has today.”

Paben said any future building plans or expansion of the Holland Center would have to be approved by the Council.

13 people spoke out in opposition to the redevelopment agreement. They all said they were actually in favor of HDR moving downtown and the expansion of the Holland Center, but they argue those things should not come at the cost of Omaha’s history.

The opponents also said the process of the development agreement has been flawed from the start. They said HDR and the City used the threat of imminent domain to force the owners of the three buildings to sell—a charge the Mayor’s office strongly denies.

Sarah Johnson, the owner of Omaha Bicycle Company, told Council members the public is being shut out of what should be an open dialogue.

“Again, we all want HDR downtown. We all want OPA expansion,” Johnson said. “We’re not architects and engineers, we’re just citizens that care about what’s going on, and we feel like we’ve come up with better ideas (than the redevelopment agreement). The fact the Freedom of Information Act has had to be called upon—does that make sense to anybody else? Again, public process. We’re the public and we’re all speaking out against this because it seems like there’s a lot of information that’s not out there. And I know you’re all smart and the leaders of Omaha, and that’s why I’m asking you to help us out, help us understand what the heck is going on that we are so in the dark about.”

 Johnson and the other opponents at Tuesday’s meeting will have to wait for their answers however, since the Council won’t be voting or commenting on the redevelopment agreement until their next meeting in two weeks.

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