The newly renovated entrance to Benson's main street is being welcomed as a sign that public improvements may catch up with, and add to, the resurgent business district's entrepreneurial energy.
“It's another visible step that not only the people in Benson are thinking about Benson but the city is thinking about Benson — and the state is, too,” said D'Ann Lonowski, a businesswoman and co-chairwoman of the Benson Business Improvement District.
A recently completed “Welcome” sign at Maple Street and Northwest Radial pretty much puts a wrap on the “east gateway” project, most of which was completed in August. Mayor Jean Stothert, City Council President Pete Festersen, Benson businesses and residents plan to have a dedication at 10 a.m. Saturday.
About $500,000 of the $560,000 total for the project came from federal transportation safety funds, Festersen said. Funding also came from other sources, including the Nebraska Department of Roads, City of Omaha, Benson Business Improvement District, neighborhood associations, Omaha By Design and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.
The project reconfigured the intersection where Maple, 58th Street and Northwest Radial come together.
Among other things, a confusing lane was removed, 58th Street was closed going south, sidewalks were improved and new landscaping was added.
Where a section of 58th Street was removed, a rain garden was built to capture, filter and absorb stormwater.
“It's all good, except for losing the grocery store,” said Steve Heater, referring to the closing of neighborhood standby Louis Market.
“The intersection is a lot clearer; it's more intuitive,” said Heater, 58, a Benson resident for 30 years. “It's going to help all the shops and restaurants that have been opening up here, and having more businesses helps my property values.”
A group of middle school children walking through the intersection last week also gave it a thumbs-up.
“They did it well,” said Zeb Franklin, 12. “It's perfect how they're making the streets look better — new signs, new trees and everything.”
He also said the intersection feels safer to walk through now.
Lonowski, president and CEO of Mint Design, said the reconfigured intersection is safer for drivers as well as cars.
“You used to be able to just keep going in the right-hand lane and then hit a (parked) car,” she said. “It was a safety hazard. ... Now its obvious that you need to stop.”
More improvements are scheduled for 2015, along Maple Street from 59th Street to 63rd Street. Festersen said that work will include improving sidewalks, and making sidewalk corners larger and safer at three key intersections.
Omaha Bicycle Co. owner Sarah Johnson and some other business owners a couple of blocks west of the new intersection said they hadn't seen much difference in business since the street construction ended.
But Johnson praised it as “a better-looking entrance to a cool neighborhood that's up and coming and has a lot going on.”
She's working, along with others, on initiatives to further improve the area for biking and walking.
One popular feature of the new Benson entrance may be something that's primarily a public works project.
That's the rain garden, or bioretention area, or bioswale. It was the solution to the question of what to do with the closed section of 58th Street.
The primary function was to catch, filter and retain some of the rainwater from the area uphill. The state and city require such features in many projects and push for them.
It's a way to keep some stormwater out of the sewer system, among other benefits.
The Benson rain garden was designed for function, form and demonstration. It looks like a dry creek bed of broken limestone, surrounded by plants.
It's designed to hold the runoff from a one-half-inch rain, said Nina Cudahy, Omaha's city environmental quality control manager.
Much of the water will be caught in the rocks and will filter down through a thick layer of sand. Catch basins in the rocks will capture gravel, sand and other materials, which can be removed. The bowl-shaped garden will fill up in a heavy rain, then absorb the rainwater in about 24 hours.
A drain beneath it can be opened to carry water from a heavier rain into a storm sewer.
With the help of Steve Rodie, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, contractor Dostals Construction built the rain garden and planted grasses, shrubs and flowers designed for the conditions, and for their looks.
Rodie said Benson people were seeking a garden look. So the blue grama and other grasses were complemented with plants such as Paint the Town shrub roses, Wood's purple asters and Hot Lips pink turtlehead flowers.
It'll take a couple of years, during which Benson volunteers may have a number of weeds to pull, but the plants should grow to fill the area, as well as take up more water.
Omaha By Design plans to add benches to the rain garden.
“Everybody's really excited” about the new entrance, Lonowski said. “Anything that attracts positive attention to Benson is good.”