Decades ago it was possible to take a slow, winding drive through the east side of Omaha without having to leave the city's tree-lined boulevard system.
Much of the 124-year-old system remains intact, its grand houses and meandering green stretches still popular spots for walkers and cyclists. But after years of development and wear and tear — not to mention the construction of highways that sliced through several neighborhoods — the boulevards are in need of some extra care.
Now, prompted in part by the massive sewer overhaul that has crews tearing up streets and sidewalks, Omaha officials are looking for something more far-reaching.
Omaha's Park Board and Planning Board have approved a 125-page master plan that spans 16 boulevards and proposes changes ranging from updated street lighting and signs to new connections between boulevards. The plan still faces hurdles: It needs the approval of the Omaha City Council and it doesn't come with a cost estimate or funding plan.
But Pat Slaven, a city park planner who has been working on the boulevard effort since last year, said it's an important guide for any changes the city makes to some of its historic streets.
“I think the big challenge is to try to work with today's needs but still try to respect the boulevards,” she said.
City planners have talked about sprucing up Omaha's boulevards for years. But while some areas have seen work, a systemwide revitalization effort was never completed.
Instead, the city and neighborhood groups have spent the past three decades making patchwork improvements across the system.
By the spring of 2012, with work on a federally mandated sewer project gearing up, planners such as Slaven gave the revitalization ideas a fresh look.
To save money on the sewer work, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion, the city was turning to green spaces such as parks and boulevards. If the soil in those areas can absorb water, the city can cut back on concrete sewers.
Marty Grate, Omaha's environmental services manager, said boulevards are a logical option for keeping stormwater out of the sewer system.
“The reality is when they laid out the boulevard system, it tended to follow waterways, and sewers tend to follow waterways, too,” Grate said. “Sewers always have been affiliated with the boulevards.”
In many locations, he said, environmental experts have found that the soil isn't ideal for “green” sewer projects, but the city still is exploring some areas, including north Omaha's Paxton Boulevard. Slaven said the chance that crews will be tearing up sidewalks, changing the width of roadways or altering green spaces was enough to merit a plan looking at the bigger picture.
“We didn't really know how these projects would affect the character of the boulevards, so we wanted to make sure we offered some guidelines for public works,” she said.
The city hired Vireo, a landscape architecture, design and planning firm, for $48,900 to study a dozen boulevards: Belvedere, Deer Park, Florence, Fontenelle, Hanscom, Happy Hollow, John A. Creighton, Lincoln, Mercer, Minne Lusa, Paxton and Turner. A handful of other boulevards were added to the final plan.
In a series of public meetings, officials gathered input from residents, most of whom live somewhere along the boulevard system. Slaven said residents' comments provided some of the central goals of the plan: preserving trees and green spaces in medians and at intersections; keeping the building setbacks and large front lawns that are characteristic of the system; and preventing overhead power lines from disturbing the landscape.
Among the more specific plans suggested by the city:
» Making Florence Boulevard more pedestrian-friendly, like other streets near Creighton University, and adding bike lanes by removing some on-street parking.
» Transforming parking spaces back into green space along Fontenelle Boulevard.
» Converting two two-way streets divided by a median on Hanscom Boulevard to one-way streets.
» Adding connections through Elmwood Park and Aksarben Village for Happy Hollow Boulevard to Center Street and Woolworth Avenue.
» Adding connections for John A. Creighton Boulevard, including through Walnut Hill Park and to Fontenelle Boulevard via Hamilton Street and Military Avenue.
» Connect Lincoln Boulevard to Turner Boulevard using 30th Street, repairing connections lost with the construction of Interstate 480.
That work, however, could be years down the road.
“A lot of the challenges are just coming up with funds to do some of these things, like more decorative lighting or signage,” Slaven said.
In the meantime, though, neighborhood groups aren't waiting around to make smaller improvements.
Jim Thompson, a member of the Leavenworth Neighborhood Association board, said his group has been working for years to obtain grant funding and make the area more attractive for residents. The group has successfully cleaned up parks and installed benches and a trail along Turner Boulevard. Thompson said he's glad that the city is paying more attention to similar efforts.
“The boulevard system is definitely an asset that the city of Omaha needs to continue to capitalize on, and through the likes of groups such as ours,” he said. “It's a win-win for both folks. If I can say we've got a bike trail right through the middle of the neighborhood, that generates a certain level of pride.”
In north Omaha, Miller Park-Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association President Rosalind Moore said keeping boulevards — and the houses along them — in good shape can help change perceptions about a neighborhood. Active residents in her area have renovated houses, including one that is used for community activities.
“We like to emphasize the fact that we have nice houses in the neighborhood, we are a nice neighborhood,” she said. “Good things go on here.”
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