Mutual(ly) Assured Destruction (of historic architecture)

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The following was written by Ben Bonebrake as part of his work on historical preservation in Omaha. 

Mutual of Omaha is a well-regarded corporate citizen in Omaha. As a highly respected Fortune 500 insurance company, the firm has a history of promoting Omaha both locally though sponsorships and nationally through its company name and the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom on the Animal Planet channel. Mutual of Omaha’s reputation was reinforced in 2010 through a massive investment in midtown Omaha with the opening of Midtown Crossing. Yet this long-standing positive view of Mutual of Omaha was put under strain when the traditional insurance company dipped its toe in commercial real estate and planned to demolish a pair of century old buildings in the process.

 

Following the 2010 grand opening of Midtown Crossing, Mutual of Omaha believed that outside investors would continue to invest in midtown Omaha. Despite Mutual’s initial 16 acre, $365 million mixed use development adjacent to their world headquarters, the additional outside investment failed to reach expectations. Dismayed, Mutual of Omaha concluded that the fractured nature of midtown property was the reason for lackluster investment in Midtown, despite their massive Midtown Crossing stimulus. In response, Mutual of Omaha began purchasing numerous tracts of land under the name of Turner Park East LLC with the goal of acquiring a large area of land to sell to an independent developer to help further their efforts in revitalizing midtown. In early 2014, Mutual of Omaha set its sights on the Clarinda and Page Apartment Buildings for acquisition and demolition. Mutual of Omaha saw the property as a key piece in driving further development in the midtown area.

 

The Clarinda and Page Apartment buildings were both over 100 years old and were designed in the Georgian Revival style by architect William W. Welch (from Clarinda, IA which is in Page County). Built in 1909 and 1914 respectively, these two midtown apartment complexes “represent the type of luxury apartments which developed along the city’s picturesque parks and boulevard system after the turn-of-the-century,” (Omaha LHPC). Both buildings were a part of the National Register of Historic Places and designated Local Landmarks via the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Committee as of April 21, 1981. The Clarinda Building was in better shape between the two. It was home to 16 condominium units that were rapidly losing value and falling into disrepair despite renovations in 2007, partly due to the housing market crash in 2009. The Page Building was worse. In 2006, the City had declared the building as unfit for human habitation. Local preservationist groups such as Restoration Exchange Omaha argued that the building could be brought back to a habitable and marketable level.

 

In the end, this large and central project in the midtown neighborhood turned out to be too much of an incentive for Omaha city leaders. Mutual’s investment in the Midtown area, with another potential development in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, brushed aside concerns over preservation. One of the major flaws in this plan was the lack of a concrete deal in place for the property at the time of debate. Despite this, Mutual successfully argued that the buildings were not truly historically significant, despite the Local Landmark designation which should be rescinded. The City of Omaha agreed, and the buildings were removed from the register in July of 2014. Mutual demolished the buildings in mid-November of 2014.

 

Over two years later, in December of 2016, Mutual announced vague plans for the entire area east of Midtown Crossing with Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. to be the primary developer, with a starting date goal of late 2017. In March of 2017, Mutual received some welcome corporate welfare when they announced that the project was getting a boost from the city in the form of a 400-unit parking structure (estimated $6.8-8 million cost to the city). Mutual was still hoping that Ryan Cos. would be able to break ground on the first office structure in the planned development before the end of 2017, but as of November 2018, a four full years after their demolition, there is still no progress and the property that used to be home to the Clarinda-Page Apartment buildings is still just a grass field.

 

Tearing down historical buildings for the mere promise of growth risks having neither growth nor historical buildings, which is the worst of all outcomes. While it is likely that Mutual’s proposed development will likely be built given their history and resources, Omaha citizens should demand more from their representatives. This particular demolition is evidence of irresponsible growth and a lack of planning. The only thing that has been eliminated by razing the structures are any alternative bids for their development which would preserve the history of the buildings.