September 14, 2017

Fighting Displacement in Omaha's Park Avenue Neighborhood

photo by: Christian Gray/inCOMMON

The Georgia Row apartments are being rehabilitated as below-market-rate housing by InCommon, an Omaha community development corporation.

InCommon, a community development corporation in Omaha, didn’t set out to be in the real estate game. But through their community center in the city’s swiftly developing Park Avenue neighborhood, they began to see that if they truly wanted to serve their clients’ best interests, giving them an affordable place to live would be a good start.

“Our initial plan for the neighborhood was more community-centric, where we were going to provide GED and ESL and job opportunities and things of that nature,” says Christian Gray, InCommon’s executive director. “We still do that, but we had to adapt to our changing context.”

In November of 2015, InCommon closed on the neighborhood’s Bristol Apartments complex, concerned that a for-profit developer might buy the 64-unit building and raise the rent. The Spanish Colonial Revival structure has been a part of Omaha's built environment since 1922, when it was constructed as the Hanscom Apartments.

As an offshoot of their efforts to update, renovate, and restore the structure, InCommon worked with Omaha preservation group Restoration Exchange for a National Register listing to enable the building to qualify for federal and state historic tax credits, as well as low-income housing tax credits. The goal was to allow many of the residents of the Bristol, which offers affordable housing to low-income or formerly homeless tenants, to stay put during and after the renovation, rather than being forced out due to new management and rising rents.

photo by: Hope Jewell

Larry Virgin, a 16-year resident of the Bristol, holds up a This Place Matters sign in front of his building.

“There hadn’t really been any investment in the neighborhood for decades,” Gray says of what the Park Avenue neighborhood was like when InCommon started its work there almost a decade ago. “A couple of years in, some development groups came in and started to revamp some of these dilapidated properties, and actually did quite a good job.” The downside was that those properties subsequently became some of the most expensive apartment complexes in the city.

In addition to the Bristol building, InCommon closed on the vacant Georgia Row apartment building, adjacent to the Bristol, in October of 2016. The Queen Anne-style structure was commissioned in 1890 by J. Herbert Van Closter, the president of the Nebraska Mortgage and Loan Company, and built of sandstone, brick, limestone, and stucco. Although neglected and dilapidated, Gray says it’s in good shape structurally. InCommon is currently going through the process of putting together financing for the project, and Gray hopes that construction on both buildings can begin in the next year and a half.

“This is a building that’s been through several years of vacancy, and a lot of things have been stripped out,” Gray says of the Georgia Row structure. “So it will be quite a task.”

InCommon is working with Omaha’s AO Architects on a plan for turning Georgia Row into housing for families, while retaining the Bristol for singles and couples. Because of the close proximity of the two buildings, the current plan is to revamp the Bristol’s basement to hold a community kitchen, community meeting space, computer lab, and a kids’ play area. “Our goal is not just to restore it and keep it affordable, but also to add some additional social service elements to it,” Gray says.

Both the Bristol and Georgia Row projects are part of InCommon’s larger effort to create a 20-year master plan for growth in the Park Avenue neighborhood that will fight gentrification and keep the area affordable for longtime residents. They are still in the process of soliciting input from everyone from neighborhood activists to real estate developers. With any luck, it will continue to be a neighborhood that people from all walks of life can call home.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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