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$20M apartment project will breathe new life into Howard Street district on western fringe of downtown

An old mansion district-turned-eyesore on the western fringe of downtown Omaha is envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly apartment campus with 153 market-rate residences in a dozen restored historical structures.

The $20 million project set to start this month is an initiative of Woodbine, Iowa-based Arch Icon and TFL Development, whose principal is Ndamukong Suh, former Nebraska football star now with the NFL Detroit Lions.

City officials say the so-called Flats on Howard — generally bounded by 22nd and 24th Streets, Dewey Avenue and Landon Court — would replace a longtime code enforcement headache. Buildings had racked up numerous violations, and housing inspectors considered the area dangerous because of drug dealing and prostitution when the now mostly-vacant buildings were inhabited.

Buoyed by the recent popularity of urban living, city officials and developers expect the effort to help return a historical district to its roots as a corridor that houses downtown workers as well as young professionals and students flocking to the city’s core.

“We want to make it as socially interactive, technology-ready as we can to entice young people to live there,” said Darin Smith of Arch Icon. “It will be a tremendous transformation.”

The proposal calls for $2.22 million in tax-increment financing (which the Planning Board endorsed this Wednesday), $3.25 million in federal historic tax credits and $2.29 million in new state historic tax credits.

Stabilization and weatherizing phases are to begin this month, with the first 65 apartments expected to be available between April and August of 2015, and the remaining 88 in 2016. Rents are to range from about $500 to $1,200, Smith said. The site would include a property management and leasing office.

The project would include many, but not all, structures in the Howard Street Apartment District. The district in 1996 won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of its properties are second- and third-generation, multifamily homes, built largely between 1908 and 1930 to replace original houses and mansions.

The district’s historical significance lies in its variety of housing stock and architecture reflective of downtown living around the early 20th century. Amid multiple-story buildings such as the Mayfair, designed in prairie style, and the Forrest, which features Moorish detailing, are rarities such as the street-court row houses along Dewey Avenue.

As envisioned, the redeveloped housing pocket of about 95,000 square feet of building space would include 147 secured parking stalls, and apartments with granite counters, stainless steel appliances, outdoor courtyard spaces and community rooms. “Bump-outs” along the main Howard Street corridor aim to promote walkability and friendly chitchat.

Among those eager for the face-lift is Martin Kluck, an Omaha architect who as a student 25 years ago lived in the Bosworth, a 1913 structure that today is but a shell.

Kluck recalls the Bosworth’s original eclectic and prairie styles — and his own studio unit bed that was “ingeniously” designed to save space by rolling under the hutch and kitchen counter.

Now with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Kluck is leading the design team that will have the Bosworth’s apartments opening to patios and a community pavilion. Because of the district’s historical status, he said, the original feel and features must be preserved if at all possible.

Said Kluck: “If you were a person around in the 1920s, when most of these buildings were here, you’ll walk past and say: ‘Yeah, it looks like it did when first built.’ That is pretty cool.”

Close enough to walk to downtown, yet on the fringe of midtown, developers want to create a mini village feel. “It’s off the beaten path,” said Smith, giving a rural feel to the small neighborhood.

A few years in the making, the redevelopment idea started as Smith and Arch Icon’s Mindy and Dustin Crook worked nearby on the Junction apartments and commercial space at 24th and Farnam Streets.

Sale prices of the two biggest apartment buildings on Howard Street, the Forrest and the Longfellow, were initially too high, Smith said, but eventually fell and became the first of several properties acquired to make the project viable. Properties not in the developers’ control will “just become part of the neighborhood,” Smith said.

While much of what they bought has been boarded up and is in disrepair, developers said they tried to keep neighbors — including the Downtown YMCA and Omaha Children’s Museum — aware of the bigger picture.

Jed Moulton, the city’s urban design manager, said the district followed a classic pattern of aging urban areas where owners lack capital to rehabilitate, and a downward spiral ushering in crime and code violations.

With the state historic tax credit program starting next year, another key piece fell into place. Arch Icon paired with Suh, a construction management major who was looking for Omaha projects. “That’s another exciting aspect,” Smith said.