An Uncommon Revitalization Happening in Omaha
Celena Shepherd, Communications
April 05, 2022
More than 140 years ago, innovative millworkers and furniture makers filled a bustling downtown Omaha, Nebraska. At the turn of the 21st century, businesses were sold or closed, and the historic brick buildings sat empty for years.
This once gritty and industrial economic hub is now being revitalized into Millwork Commons, a 50-acre neighborhood that is breathing new life into downtown Omaha while maintaining the area’s authentic industrial roots.
And there’s more to come.
The long-term goal for Millwork Commons is to strengthen Omaha’s urban core and add a culturally vibrant and inclusive space for creators, innovators, and the community. Located near 13th and Nicholas streets, the project includes retail, residential, and office space and a unique park and adjacent skatepark.
Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture recruited Olsson to help design the sustainable, inclusive, and pedestrian-friendly district for Black Dog Management, which owns Millwork Commons. Katie Underwood, Olsson’s Omaha General Civil team leader, views Millwork Commons as a unique project that will be a great amenity for the city.
“I think Millwork Commons is important from a community perspective because this is a Nebraska-registered historic district,” said Katie, who also serves as Olsson’s project manager. “This development is preserving a great area of Omaha, which is very cool, because otherwise who knows what would’ve happened with these great old buildings.”
Olsson was tasked with using Millwork Common’s rich history to design a creative, welcoming, and sustainable space. First, Olsson delivered a due diligence report in the record time of two weeks. The report evaluated critical engineering aspects and provided a plan to develop the area in an efficient and safe manner.
“It’s no stretch to say that infrastructure-wise, this location of town is one of the most complicated there is because of its industrial history,” she said. “There is combined sewer, heavy truck traffic, and centuries old infrastructure that made the civil engineering aspects extra challenging.”
But our engineers were up for the challenge. Next on our list was the nearly 200,000-square-foot Ashton Building.
We provided essential civil design, survey, geotechnical, and traffic services to get the Ashton Building and surrounding road network ready for business. Now open, the three-story structure houses community and office space and a variety of food vendors and retailers.
We also provided civil engineering services for two apartment complexes that are under construction. The 171-unit Hello Apartments located north of the Ashton Building is scheduled to open this summer. Construction is also set to begin later this year on the $30 million Dizzy Mule complex, named after the area’s historical mule barn. The building will include 18,000 square feet of retail space and 172 residences.
Just across the street from the Ashton Building is the 40,000-square-foot Millwork Park, which opened in November 2021. Park designer, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, called on us to help design a welcoming, accessible, and equitable park for the community. Katie teamed up with Olsson Studio landscape architect Kayla Meyer to get the job done.
We produced efficient and pedestrian-friendly civil designs for the park that include a greenspace, basketball court, children’s play area, dining and performing areas, and a skatepark. Olsson introduced the idea of including a dedicated spot for skateboarders at Millwork Park, and it’s now Omaha’s first skatepark with lights for evening use.
There’s plenty more unique about Millwork Park. Like the sustainable plants and landscape: fully organic and free of herbicides and pesticides.
In addition to ensuring Millwork Park was sustainable and pedestrian-friendly, the client also envisioned making the park authentically Nebraskan. Kayla selected thousands of native plants and collaborated with a local nursery, Mulhall’s, to grow seeds into full-grown plants specifically for the park.
“It was really amazing to see Millwork Park come together,” Kayla said. “It is forward-thinking, eco-conscious, and an overall, really unique park.”
Millwork Park also incorporated the Rootspace soil cell system, an urban tree-planting technique that is the first of its kind in Omaha. Kayla helped with the tree planting and said this technique creates a protected area of healthy soil to promote root growth and long-lasting trees in an urban environment.
Not only were the plants native to Nebraska, but so was the park’s soil. Initially, the former industrial site did not have ideal soil conditions for plants to flourish. Olsson senior scientist Ted Hartsig recommended creating a more natural plant environment by adding Omaha-based soil to restore the overall structure and resiliency of the landscape.
“Doing this improved the park’s sustainability and the long-term resiliency of the soil and vegetation,” Ted said. “For example, as Millwork Park hosts large events, this healthier turfgrass can recover and grow back faster, and it won’t require as much fertilizer or irrigation to sustain the plants because the soil is healthier with critical soil biology, chemistry, and physical condition.”
With nearly half of its 50-acres developed, the district has positioned itself as a hub for creators and innovators and a place for the community to enjoy. In true Millwork Commons fashion, this unique project invited our team to implement innovative techniques and sustainable design solutions.
“I think this is an example of a project that’s very intentional and shows the breadth of how engineering, landscape architecture, and soil work can enhance community spaces,” Kayla said. “My favorite part is the community piece because I love working on projects that create new spaces for the public.”
Next up on Millwork Commons’ queue is the Disbrow Block, still in the development stage. The area consists of three connected buildings set to offer innovative office space, housing, and retail shops.