City Planning Department's 'growing pains' provide fodder for Suttle critics -
Published Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:29 am
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City Planning Department's 'growing pains' provide fodder for Suttle critics

The gleaming building near 10th and Worthington Streets stands in contrast to its turn-of-the-century neighbors in the Dahlman area.

It's a sleek piece of contemporary architecture, complete with upscale apartments and a nice coffee shop — a different sight than the vacant lot that used to be there.

But some observers say a needlessly exhaustive process unfolded as the building rose in the historic neighborhood just south of the Old Market. The alleged culprit: Omaha's Planning Department and its rigid design standards for the area.

“It caused a lot of hard feelings,” former Mayor Mike Boyle said of the spat. He's not connected to the project but heard complaints about the controversy and cites the issue as a source of his concerns about the department. “I really think it was unnecessary, period,” Boyle said.

“Is this really something we should've drawn a line on? I don't think so.”

Complaints about Mayor Jim Suttle's Planning Department have become a talking point for opponents of the mayor's re-election bid. Former candidates Dave Nabity and Dan Welch argued that the department harms local business growth. City Councilwoman Jean Stothert has said the organization needs new leadership.

To some, the issue typifies the struggle between private enterprise and government regulation.

“There's going to be somebody out there that wants to push the limits,” Planning Director Rick Cunningham said. “We have multiple roles, but we also have a regulatory role. What we've tried to do is soften the regulatory side as much as possible, but at some point we get pushed to the point where we can't move any more in that regulatory role.”

Department officials still believe they are helping private enterprise. Steps have been taken to bring the building permit application process online, and Cunningham promises to bring 85 percent of permit requests and plan reviews to the web by the end of the year. The department eased design regulations in the Dahlman area to better accommodate some commercial development. And the department has led Omaha's push for growth inside the Interstate loop.

“My frustration is that I hear a lot of generalities, and I think we're pretty open to talking about things,” Assistant Planning Director Chad Weaver said of the grumbling.

Contractors still grouse about delayed building permit reviews or tough inspections. Developers sometimes do the same over what they see as inflexible urban planning standards. Others point to difficulty communicating with department officials to resolve disputes.

“The bottom line is that private developers are apprehensive to develop anything in Omaha because of the struggle and angst of dealing with city planning,” said Nancy Mammel, developer of the 10th and Worthington site. “It discourages any new development and new companies considering coming to Omaha. They need to be a partner. It is the private developers making Omaha thrive.”

While some developers have complaints, commercial development projects are still going up around Omaha. A new office headquarters is under construction at 14th and Dodge Streets, new hotels are being developed downtown and proposals for other commercial developments there are moving forward. Apartment projects in and around downtown and midtown are proliferating, led by firms such as NuStyle Development and Urban Village.

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Still, even Suttle acknowledges some frustration. The department has experienced growing pains as development revived after the city's fiscal crisis, he said at an appearance this week.

“With all the activities going on, all of a sudden, this started blossoming with our development community,” Suttle said. “So we've got newbies in the Planning Department. We've got the Omaha By Design statutes that we put in place after some six years of hard work. We now have the development community working, and we have some growing pains.”

But Suttle said he is ready to make changes in the department.

“I want to make the right changes that are going to produce the results that we need in order to move forward as a city,” he told the Omaha Morning Rotary Club.

The Planning Department has a broad range of responsibilities.

A multimillion-dollar commercial development downtown and a deck on a Millard home fall under its oversight. The department also oversees ambitious plans to implement alternatives to car-based transportation and to create jobs in a revitalized urban core.

That gives it a broad exposure to critics. So in some ways, it's the same criticism that always follows the department.

Suttle's predecessor, Mike Fahey, initiated new urban design rules that the Planning Department carries out today.

“This will always be a problem department because there's a lot of action there,” said Boyle, now a County Board member who has endorsed Suttle in Tuesday's general election. “You're always going to have someone be angry. That's just the nature of the deal.”

Jerry Slusky, a local development attorney, said some frustration comes from how businesses feel they're treated by the city.

“It's an attitude,” he said, and developers and their advisers often don't feel treated like customers. “It always feels like an 'us and them' situation,” he said.

Slusky said there is a growing perception of a communication gap between developers and planners.

“That communication could be, maybe should be: 'Here are our rules, we're willing to make a few adjustments ... but we're willing to support you because we see the importance of this project.'

“In other words, help the development community solve the problem.”

So why did a coffee shop in Mammel's project cause a stir?

In 2010, city planners adopted a “neighborhood conservation and enhancement district” that runs on 10th Street from downtown to the Interstate. Property owners and preservationists welcomed the concept because it was largely designed to preserve the area's historic character.

But the zoning rules didn't allow for commercial use in certain areas, so developers wanting, for example, to include a coffee shop in an apartment building couldn't do so without a special use permit.

Roughly a year later, Mammel proposed her plan, which ran counter to the city's rules. Mammel said the city could have quickly issued a permit, but the process dragged on.

Planners say the project caused them to rethink parts of the neighborhood plan.

Said Weaver: “The moral of the story is, we're open to talking about any of it. But we are trying to look out for the entire city, and the growth and the prosperity of it. We have to try and be mindful of the goals of each and every one.”

World-Herald staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

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