Charrette Journal

Day One
Historic Omaha Charrette Begins Today
New traditional neighborhood begins to take shape as design team gets to work.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006 - The planning and design charrette for State and 168th Streets begins in earnest today, as the PlaceMakers team settles into the studio, sets up operations and, for the first time together, walks the 160 acres that comprise what's currently known as the Freeman property.

"It's been a long time coming," said a noticeably pleased Herb Freeman, referring to the many months he's spent researching development trends, selecting a planning firm, and making presentations to colleagues and local officials (download a copy of Herb's presentation here.

The charrette technically began Monday, as team members from around the country began arriving and setting up studio space at the Regency Lodge. Workspaces were arranged, a computer network was established, and box after box of supplies began to be unpacked. The result, being put to use today, is a fully functioning office where a detailed site plan, sample architecture, and even an architectural code inspired by the finest historic precedents will come to define an entirely new neighborhood.

While specifics of the plan won't be known until the charrette is complete, Freeman is firm on the broad principles that will distinguish the project from anything else in the Omaha suburbs.

"This will be a shining example of Traditional Neighborhood Development," he noted, referring to an increasingly popular design approach that borrows from the best of community planning before the era of automobile domination.

With a growing number of built examples around the country, traditional neighborhood developments acknowledge the need for cars but make human beings the design focus. That means walkable neighborhoods with plenty of casual gathering places, narrow streets to slow traffic, and sidewalks and nature paths that lead to interesting places - like a neighborhood coffee shop, book store, or corner grocery.

"Wherever these neighborhoods are built," says Freeman, "they're amazingly popular. There's simply no reason that people in Omaha shouldn't have the same choices as other people in the country. That's what we're going to offer. Starting today."


Day Two
Off and Running
Planning efforts build momentum as design team takes to the field.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - The participatory nature of charrette planning will be in full effect today as local commissioners, planning board members, fire fighters, DOT officials, and safety and public works representatives arrive at the design studio for a series of collaborative meetings.

The goal is common ground, where the interrelated nature of town planning becomes clear. Emergency vehicles, for instance, prefer wider streets while modest street widths increase pedestrian safety by slowing cars down. By coming together with the design team, respective specialists can seek solutions that serve both ends.

The meetings will follow Tuesday's full day of research and orientation, where developer Herb Freeman told his planning team how he became determined to bring Traditional Neighborhood Development to Omaha. "I'm convinced there's a large segment of people in Omaha who want this but don't yet know it," said Herb. "All the research I've seen suggests that as many as 30 percent of potential buyers would purchase homes in traditional neighborhood developments if they had the chance. I'm willing to let other developers compete for the 70 percent. I'll focus on reaching that unserved 30 percent. If I can do that, this will be a fabulously successful project."

With intensive research in TND approaches under his belt, as well as visits to some classic built examples, Herb figures he may be able to improve on the form. "It's not enough to have a walkable neighborhood," said Herb. "I want to have lots of destinations that are worth walking to."

Because pedestrian destinations are a challenge in automobile-oriented suburbs, Herb thinks his new community must make a special effort to create special places within its boundaries. So he's asking the design team to plan for greens, parks, fountains, gazebos, and other casual gathering places.

The other occasional TND misstep, according to Herb, is "to include too many diverse architectural styles that fight one another" in the overall design of a community.

Bill Dennis, who heads the charrette design team and has participated in the planning of some 130 TNDs, agreed with Herb. "The key," said Bill, "is to create an immersive architectural environment" in which style variations are complementary.

Sample architectural approaches will emerge from the team of designers beginning Thursday. "I think people will love it once they see it," said Herb.

The day progressed as the design team reviewed topographic maps, examined architectural precedents and toured historic neighborhoods throughout Omaha, ultimately ending up onsite at the Freeman property.

With its rising slope and dramatic native grass ascending to a striking Federalist-style home, the site proved worthy fodder for designers seeking inspiration.


Day Three
Fruits of Our Labor
After a day of meetings, planning team displays work in progress.

Thursday, September 7, 2006 - "From your lips to our colored pencils." That's the rallying cry in the studio today, as the design team works to incorporate ideas and guidance from Wednesday's meetings and an end-of-day critique of the first day's sketches.

The out-of-town planners were encouraged by initial reactions and positive participation from the local officials, as well as an enlightening reaction from former Omaha planning director Bob Peters.

"It was amazing," continued Henderson. "We'd been grappling with, of all things, where to put utility meters. With the help of Jeffrey Loll from the Metropolitan Utilities District, the issue was essentially resolved on the spot. It went straight into the drawings."

Appreciation for the process was a two-way, traffic-calmed street. "This is great what you're doing. I hope people learn from this," offered Jim Suttle of the Omaha City Council.

Everyone realizes, of course, there will have to be give and take before the emerging plans become a reality. "There are places we can flex, and places where we don't flex," said Jeffrey Loll, Director of Engineering Design, Metropolitan Utilities District.

Immediately following the morning meetings, the design team began working suggestions into first drafts of site plans and architecture. By the end of the day, when designers pinned up their work for a team critique, transportation planner Dewayne Carver had already followed through on discussions with city officials. Dewayne's initial sketches visualized State Street, on the southern boundary of developer Herb Freeman's property, as an arterial road reworked as a boulevard able to move the traffic predicted by city planners, but bordered by a row of buffering trees.

Architect Victor Deupi worked on preliminary ideas for preserving Herb's 12-year-old Georgian home, which sits atop the highest point in the rolling landscape. Impressed by the views from Herb's porch, Victor wants to make the house a focal point of the site plan. And planner Howard Blackson had already begun work on a plan for retail in the southwest corner of the property.

Today, the team hears more ideas from builders and real estate professionals. Based on that, they'll refine their ideas in progress and evaluate everything again in an end-of-day pin-up. Watch this space to follow the evolution of some of the exciting ideas, including proposals for a skating rink, sledding slopes, and a croquet lawn.


Day Four
Crank Time
Armed with input and information from all corners, the team prepares for two days of intensive design.

Friday, September 8, 2006 - Draw. Consider. Crumple. Repeat. And so continues the process today as the Freeman Property charrette team builds on three days' progress and begins their final push to design Omaha's first new traditional neighborhood.

"I love the give and take," says Cathy Lorenz, who observed the controlled mayhem Thursday. "I saw a lot of creativity."

The swarm-like activity follows Thursday's morning meeting with local architects, builders and realtors, where the collective comments made a noticeable turn from what's not allowed (a component of previous meetings) to what those on the front lines, bringing housing to the people who want it, believe will serve the project.

There's good reason for their enthusiasm and support. "When it's executed well, traditional neighborhood developments have been extraordinarily lucrative," said Nathan Norris, director of implementation advisory for PlaceMakers.

Not surprisingly, the point was well received.

Midday brought a pleasant surprise in the form of visitor counts for this website, confirming an audience of 1,650 people actively following the activities from points afar. Even more encouraging was the degree to which they've been symbolically "lining up," registering their contact information and requesting ongoing information as the project moves forward. Not registered yet? Secure your spot here.

One of the key themes for discussions leading into the final days of the planning effort is the architectural personality of the project. For the coming days, team architects will be working to create design solutions that complement the existing Freeman home.

Today, we'll be watching as architect Victor Deupi refines his ideas about the conversion of the Freeman residence to a community center and "spiritual focus" of the new neighborhood.


Day Five
Showtime!
Friday all-nighter sets the stage for today's final presentation.

Saturday, September 9, 2006 - Following Friday night's flurry of iPod-powered activity, a week's worth of effort - local study, stakeholder engagement, traditional land planning and architectural development - comes to a close today as the design team completes their work and prepares for a late afternoon presentation to Founder Herb Freeman.

Friday, perhaps more than any other day, was about the refinement of ideas. Loose concepts, random thoughts and wild-eyed dreams generated during the week began coming together and assuming a coherent form. Blocks took shape, forming lots where architectural ideas could be tested. Widths and other criteria were established for primary routes, secondary streets and alleys. Independent pieces such as the town center became integrated with the whole, and the fine mix of housing types, commercial and civic spaces became increasingly clear.

In a burst of Midwestern wisdom, real estate broker L. Scott Momsen summed up the progress: "The Jello's been poured into the mold," he said, "and it's beginning to set."

Midday saw a consistent stream of visitors as those close to the process dropped in to chat with Herb and review work. Among them were representatives from Omaha's public works departments who, as observed by former planning director Bob Peters, seemed "impressed and favorable… expressing some encouraging support for the arterial's evolving boulevard concept."

This was good news, reflecting a true openness to new ideas, so long as such ideas could be proven viable. Based on the performance of countless well-loved places nationwide, both historic and new, where traditional forms exist and perform well, the team had no doubt in their ability to do so.

As day faded into night and take-out Indian food had come and gone, it seemed the task at hand had only gotten started. A real place, it seems, requires real work.

Call it a labor of love.


Day Six
Herb Freeman Project to Set New Standard
From an Omaha beanfield... a new community emerges.

It's a new neighborhood unlike any other built in the last 50 years, but Founder Herb Freeman’s planned project for State and 168th Streets will immediately remind Omaha residents of places they revere - Dundee, Happy Hollow, Field Club.

The rolling landscape will be respected, providing a unique setting for a community that comfortably mixes residences of all types with parks, plazas, walking paths, and places to gather for festivals and everyday fun. (Click here to see the site plan; here for the block structure; and here for the greenspace network.)

Interest in the neighborhood and the market choices it represents has been significant since news of the development first became public with articles in the Omaha World Herald and on this website, and has even generated a healthy discussion of traditional neighborhood development online at eOmaha.com.

Developer Herb Freeman's home, a Georgian mansion that sits in the geographic center of his 160 acres, anchors a community commons. On the commons, a tower rises, offering views of the community in all directions. At its base are fireplaces and seating, providing an inviting conversation area in most seasons. A large green, suitable for croquet and Frisbee tossing spreads below the mansion-turned-community center. And across the green from the tower is a classically proportioned building to accommodate festival displays and parties.

The architecture of the new community draws its inspiration from the Colonial-era designs Herb loves. (For Herb's thoughts on architectural personality, click here.) It's a style particularly suited to the contours of the former farmland, affording a variety of lot sizes and slopes. In fact, the rolling topography, considered an obstacle to conventional suburban development, enhances the unique feel of streets and the homes and commercial structures that line the streets.

The designs of individual buildings demonstrate the broad variety of approaches to the Colonial-era styles. Here again is the best of the old with all the advantages of the new. Architects on Herb's charrette team produced a wide selection of single-family homes, multifamily structures, and live-work units.

Future residents of the community will also enjoy one of the key ingredients of a traditional neighborhood design - the ability to walk to cafes, shopping, and other everyday destinations within the community. For Herb's project, designers created a vibrant market area in the southwest corner of the parcel.

Judging by the enthusiasm of folks who saw the final presentation of charrette plans on September 9, Herb is already well on its way towards delivering on his promise to set a new standard for new neighborhoods in Omaha.

In the coming months, as the project works its way through the planning and permitting process and new information becomes available, email updates will be released to those following along.

View the original What's New on State Street web site - created at the time of the Charette.

Want to stay connected?

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