Visualize for a moment what was dreamed up for the rail yard near 10th and Pacific Streets as part of the city's 2009 downtown master plan: a civic space called Aksarben Yard, equipped with a Ferris wheel and carousel, wintertime ice rink and permanent market area.
Another key feature? A revitalized Burlington Station, the former passenger train station that as recently as the 1970s served Amtrak and, in its heyday, was frequented by thousands of travelers, from war-bound husbands and brothers to families off to visit relatives in other cities.
Now, fast forward to today. Put yourself in the shoes of people who board the California Zephyr train in Omaha at 5 a.m or 11 p.m., the only times it stops here on its way to and from Chicago and San Francisco. Or imagine you're a traveler already aboard the California Zephyr just passing through Omaha on the way to your destination.
“From here,” said Amtrak conductor Brad Swartzwelter during a 4:45 a.m. stop in Omaha last week, “it feels like (the city) is in decay.”
The plan that was created to spur the downtown's economy called for transit and residential use for the old station adjacent to the restored Durham Museum, the former Union Station. Other envisioned plans have made more headway: Discussion is under way about a bridge that would link the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge with north downtown and an improved transit route between central Omaha and downtown.
The Burlington depot redevelopment could end up back in the spotlight because passenger rail travel is a hot topic. Ridership is increasing across the country, according to a Brookings Institution report in February. In 2012, Amtrak carried a record 31 million riders, a 55 percent increase since 1997.
A Denver-based conductor who's traveled the Denver-to-Omaha leg of the California Zephyr trip since 1998, Swartzwelter said each time he stops in Omaha, he wonders why plans to spruce up the downtown Burlington Station and surrounding area haven't been realized.
Passengers notice, too. Travelers wait in a 1970s-era Amtrak station just east of the Burlington. Some call the area spooky, while others say they have the impression there's not much worth coming back to Omaha for.
Swartzwelter said other cities along his route have restored old train depots or built new ones, while Omaha has allowed one of its historic stations to deteriorate. That's a shame, he said, because it's the only window to the city some 170,000 passengers a year see while passing through Omaha on the Zephyr.
“Say you're from Los Angeles and you come through the middle of night and see this,” he said. “You think Omaha's an old, crumbling town.”
Myriel “My” Boes, an Omaha interior designer and owner of the Burlington, said in a recent interview that “changes in the status of the building are in progress” but declined to give specifics.
Many have an interest in seeing something done with the historic train station and the immediate area.
City Planning Director Rick Cunningham said he hasn't seen any movement on selling the Burlington, but interested parties have looked at or bought buildings around it.
Opened recently in the area are apartments like Bluestone Development's 8 Street Apartments on Eighth and Pacific Streets and CO2 Apartments near 10th and William Streets. A new home for the Blue Barn Theatre at 10th and Pacific Streets is planned to open later this year, while plans for a development of offices and homes for veterans are under way near Ninth and Dorcas Streets.
The Burlington is a challenging sell, Cunningham said, because it has sat for years and would take millions to redo. The Durham restoration, for example, took more than $22 million.
“It's an area we would certainly like to get redeveloped,” Cunningham said, “but when it comes down to it, it needs to make sense for the developers. It costs more to do a redevelopment project like that.”
The Brookings report looked at Amtrak's ridership in each of the largest 100 metro areas, including Omaha, and found most ridership was on short-distance routes in 10 cities, mostly along the coasts, plus Chicago.
That's translating into financial losses for longer routes. Amtrak's two longest routes, the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief, each lost more than $60 million in 2011.
Though the long routes may not be as operationally efficient, that doesn't mean people should count long routes out, said the report's co-author Joe Kane, because they, too, serve a vital purpose.
“Long distance, unlike short, routes cater to communities that may not have as many alternative modes of transportation to choose from,” he said, pointing out that people who live in rural Nebraska and near the California Zephyr route may opt to catch the train instead of driving several hours to an airport. “It's still an important connection for those communities.”
Long routes also support short routes, Kane said. Many travelers who are riding a long-distance route ultimately switch to a short-distance route and that lends to “a national network that Amtrak has tried to support throughout the years.”
In total, the California Zephyr served 376,459 people last year, a nearly 29 percent increase compared with 15 years ago. Swartzwelter said most riders don't stay on the train the entire route but, based on his observations, about half of his passengers actually end up going through Omaha each year.
People in the metro area are taking notice of passenger rail's increasing popularity.
There's a movement by a local pro-rail group to create a faster, more frequent passenger rail option between Omaha and Chicago. Omaha city officials are also talking about an electrically powered light-rail system, or a “modern streetcar,” that would connect central Omaha and downtown.
There's chatter about the Burlington having a role in some of those plans.
Steve Jensen, a former Omaha planning director working as a consultant to improve transit between the downtown-to-midtown corridor, said there are great opportunities for that area to be part of the city's future transit plan. But how the Burlington and immediate area look now, he said, “is not exactly the kind of first impression Omaha should be giving to travelers on Amtrak.”
Members of ProRail Nebraska also want to see the Burlington restored and returned to its original use as a train station, potentially as part of their high-speed transit vision, said president Dave Purdy.
“It's a tragedy,” he said. “It's a beautiful building, but it's decaying. It'd take a lot of money to fix it up, but it could be the heart of a transportation center.”
Designed by Omaha architect Thomas Kimball, the Burlington opened in 1898. A Greek temple-like design, the building was supported by 28 granite columns.
In 1930, it was extensively remodeled because a competitor, the Union Station, was to open nearby the following year. The Burlington's columns were removed, with most going to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
About 25 years later, it was remodeled again and a parking lot and a circular drive were added. By 1971, Burlington — a forerunner of today's BNSF Railway, owned by Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway — closed the depot, leasing it to Amtrak.
Amtrak's stint there lasted only a few years, moving out in 1974 because of high maintenance costs.
Years later, in 1983, came a series of private Burlington owners, each of whom had plans to convert the building into other uses. One wanted a restaurant and cocktail lounge. Another wanted offices, a convention center, shops and restaurants. Another, Warren Distribution, wanted it for the company's new headquarters.
In 1993, Warren put it on the market again, this time for $795,000.
Eleven years later, OnTrack Development, an LLC formed by Boes, bought it for $650,000 with plans to transform it into luxury residential and commercial-retail condos along with a restaurant, grocery store and spa. In October 2007, the project was approved with $1.75 million in tax-increment financing part of the deal.
But that plan never materialized. Boes blames the recession.
The Burlington's most recent use has been as a venue for occasional theater performances and an Omaha Fashion Week after-party last fall, and also as a backdrop for engagement, graduation and other photography sessions.
Swartzwelter said doing something more would do the city good. As riders board, get off or pass through, they get an up-close view of the dark, vacant Burlington.
“To have it be an inviting, beautiful place that people are excited to get through could do wonders for the city's image and bring a lot of people back that say, 'I didn't know about this. I didn't know about the Old Market. I didn't know about the Creighton basketball team,' ” he said. “They could end up coming back.”
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