Robert Grinnell doesn't have to see the trucks passing to know they're out there.
The rumble of semis cruising down Nicholas Street is enough to startle most first-time visitors to his office in the Ashton building, a 113-year-old converted warehouse in Omaha's north downtown.
“Computers shake on the desks,” he said. “Imagine your worst nightmare of an office job, and that's what you've got inside my business. We'll have a meeting here with someone who hasn't experienced it, and they'll grab on to the arms of their chair and say: 'My God, what was that?' ”
As the neighborhood around the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park transforms from a run-down industrial area into a destination for art galleries, tech companies and coffee shops, the rumbling is getting louder — but it's not just the trucks.
Business and property owners in the area are pushing the city to find a new route for trucks moving from north Omaha to the Interstate, arguing that problems with noise and safety could keep north downtown from developing.
City officials, meanwhile, say they understand the problem but also can't risk shutting off a pipeline that keeps industry alive in north Omaha. Both groups have been meeting for months, but so far they have come to just one conclusion: This is a problem with no great solution.
The story of how Nicholas Street became a route for about 560 large trucks each day varies depending on who is telling it.
People with properties and businesses in the area say things shifted quickly — and without warning — a few years ago, when the new ballpark went up along with shops and hotels on Cuming Street.
Cuming Street, officially classified as a truck route, had long handled traffic heading from north Omaha industries to the Interstate. In 2009, however, the city disconnected a link between Nicholas and 12th Streets, which meant trucks headed east on Cuming Street couldn't make a left turn onto 12th Street.
Some truck traffic moved north to Nicholas Street, which, like Cuming, has officially been a truck route for more than a decade.
Murthy Koti, a city traffic engineer, said the street follows the same design rules of all other truck routes, which includes frequent maintenance work to accommodate greater wear and tear on the pavement. The city is currently resurfacing the street, which had been torn up for sewer work.
But business and property owners such as Grinnell, who owns the Ashton building at 12th and Nicholas Streets and the Mastercraft building about a block away, said Nicholas is not a street meant for heavy trucks.
Grinnell said historic buildings like the Ashton, which are close to the street, can't handle the near-constant vibration from the trucks. Bricks are regularly shaken out of the building, he said.
Plus, he's worried about safety. The posted speed limit on Nicholas Street is 30 mph.
Grinnell said many trucks cruise through at much faster speeds — and he has even gone so far as to buy a radar gun and hidden in the bushes to check for himself. (He said he will catch a few trucks going too fast but will see them drop to the speed limit once drivers spot him.)
Koti said the city did its own speed check and didn't find any significant problems.
Stop signs aren't an option to slow down traffic. Koti said city policies and federal regulations prohibit the use of stop signs for speed control because they lead to other problems with drivers' running the signs.
But until things change, people in north downtown said, it could be a hard sell to bring in more businesses — and particularly to make it more of a residential neighborhood.
“I don't think things are going to develop the way the city wants them to develop unless the truck traffic is moved,” said Jennifer Zimmer, president of the North Downtown Omaha Alliance. “It's not just the truck traffic, but the speed of traffic on the way to the airport. Until traffic slows down, it's not a safe pedestrian area.”
The area has been able to attract interest from several companies. Grinnell's Mastercraft building is about half full, with 35 tenants.
Grinnell said he would like to transform the Ashton into apartments and additional offices, but he feels as if it would be a tough sell while it's still on a truck route.
He and others have written to members of the City Council and Mayor Jean Stothert, and it seems that they are listening.
Property owners have been meeting monthly with city officials for several months.
Cassie Seagren, Stothert's deputy chief of staff focusing on economic development, said she began working on the issue even before Stothert took office. Koti and others are mapping out potential new routes, but each comes with its own set of problems.
Residential areas can't be a truck route. Making the route longer means companies would have to spend more on gas and extend their drive.
Seagren said it is important to choose an option that is more than a Band-Aid for a problem.
Tim Barry, managing partner of Hot Shops Art Center at 13th and Nicholas Streets, agrees that it's important to take the time to make the right decisions — but he doesn't want to see progress delayed as a result.
“Up until now, this whole area hasn't been developed,” he said. “But it's prime for development right now.”