Belted in - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 4:05 pm
Belted in

A non-traditional college student trying to get to class at three different campuses while still making ends meet.

A single mother living in Bellevue and working at the Nebraska Medical Center.

A young airman newly stationed at Offutt Air Force Base and looking for an opportunity to see more of the community, find a favorite diner and maybe work on a degree.

What do these three people have in common? They all likely live within a 10-minute walk of something called the Omaha Belt Line, and chances are they could benefit from a new tack on transportation being pitched by an Omaha design group.

In 1885, when the Omaha metropolitan area was still largely defined along lines running from North Omaha to southern Bellevue, the Belt Line connected commerce and industry to the main trunks of major railways.

As overland trucking began to outpace the freight train in the mid-20th century, the Belt Line began losing steam and eventually was abandoned in the 1980s as the metro area also began to invest in transportation and development corridors stretching east to west.

Some 30 years later, a group of progressively-minded designers, architects and planners are envisioning a renaissance for the Belt Line — a rebirth which would bring this still crucial swathe back to its roots and reconnect the spine upon which the metropolitan community initially grew.

For the last month, a team of six designers working with Omaha-based Emerging Terrain, a nonprofit research and design collaborative, have studied the Belt Line and devised an ambitious, eight-year plan to reintroduce a rail system — light rail, this time for commuters — and reinfuse the tract for development of housing, commerce, industry and education.

The new Belt Line would run roughly south-southeast from Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus at 30th and Fort streets in Omaha, to Offutt, just south of Highway 370.

It would pass either through or within shouting distance of University of Nebraska Medical Center, the Veterans Affairs Hospital and Metro’s South Omaha Campus, before joining up along Fort Crook Road and proceeding south to Bellevue University and Offutt’s new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters.

While the focus of the Belt Line is concentrated on its central segment between UNMC and Metro’s Fort Omaha, the Sarpy County segment is not without its champions.

Sloan Dawson, a city and transportation planner and one of the six designers on the Belt Line project, said while the Belt Line would help in a re-envisioning of Omaha, it could also prove to strengthen a new backbone in Bellevue.

“Pulling the corridor onto Fort Crook Road, especially with the work Bellevue is doing there makes complete sense in the scope of this project,” Dawson said. “We’re talking about making Fort Crook Road a new spine of the city that connects not only with central Omaha, but will become a prime development area. There’s so much capacity for Fort Crook right now.”

Even as the land around the Belt Line fell into dereliction, there were early-adopters who saw the possibilities in it, Dawson said. Metro, UNMC and Bellevue University all found ways to redevelop and increase their foothold along the line and the potential for bringing more people to educational opportunities is a prime mover of the project.

A demographic study of the area surrounding the Belt Line shows educational attainment around the line is amongst the lowest in the metro area. There’s also higher unemployment and more single-parent households.

But there’s also a lower median age and more households without a car. In those two factors, Dawson said the designers see enormous potential to reverse the former trends.

“This could really connect people with jobs, opportunities for advancement,” he said. “Serving Bellevue University, Stratcom, Metro and having those institutions all feed into the Belt Line might reverse some of those demographic trends we see. There are fulcrum points all along this corridor that will connect neighborhoods with institutions and from there, you start to see the opportunities, the development you want to see.”

All told, Emerging Terrain estimates the capacity for growth along the Belt Line to run to roughly 4,000 housing units and 9,200 jobs.

The numbers and ideas impressed at least one policymaker who attended an open house Thursday to share the results of the month-long study at Emerging Terrain’s Vinton Street offices.

Bellevue Councilman Don Preister said he likes where the design team is headed with the Belt Line and said he can see Bellevue as a beneficiary should the vision be realized.

“It was a rail line before, it can be again,” Preister said as he perused a set of 4-by-2-foot boards sitting at knee-level and arrayed south to north, each bearing a segment of map outlaying the Belt Line.

“The corridor exists to connect the Base and Bellevue to the greater Omaha area,” he said. “It has tremendous potential, especially along Fort Crook, where we’re hoping we can continue to bring more development. Making this plan a reality is good for Bellevue.”

While that reality remains relatively distant, the idea still fired imaginations. Dawson and his fellow team members gave a rough sketch of how land — mostly right-of-way and parcels with abandoned warehouses — could be acquired, city government engaged and communities motivated, but they acknowledged the feats of hoop-jumping and crystal-ball gazing likely looming to make it a reality.

Jim Thorburn, CEO of Dicon Construction, said he was impressed with the presentation of the project and said he can envision his company partnering with businesses to create the ancillary development the transportation line could attract.

“It’s a great vision, if something could be done to unite the diverse parts of the city,” Thorburn said. “It just takes someone to get the idea started.”

Others said it was a refreshing change of pace to see a realignment of thought about transportation and community.

“As our society has changed, our transportation has changed,” Preister said. “We have been mobile west to east but there are more people who are going north to south and we don’t have a lot of emphasis on that. This holds a lot of promise.”

To make good on it, Dawson said, is now the main push.

“It would be an unprecedented effort,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

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