El Dorado and nonprofit Seventy Five North reinvent the community center on a former public housing site.
What was the Highlander neighborhood like when you started work there, and how did you approach its revitalization?
Othello Meadows, president and CEO, Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp.: Highlander is on the near north side of Omaha, and for a long time it’s been an epicenter of public housing. You had three large housing projects and a highway that went through the neighborhood in the early ’80s with eminent domain. In 2008 or 2009, the [Omaha] Housing Authority demolished the housing projects, and those 23 acres of land sat vacant. So the neighborhood as we found it had not much density and a lot of decay.
We wanted to re-densify the neighborhood and to bring people back to this community that has been down for a really long time. The Sherwood Foundation [a local social justice organization] and I were discussing ways to be impactful in Highlander and having a bunch of meetings with people in the community and going to see other developments. I was tipped-off about one in Atlanta that was done by Purpose Built Communities, and the idea for this holistic neighborhood redevelopment came about as a result of learning more about what was going on there.
What do Purpose Built Communities entail?
OM: The model is really focused on three things. The first is creating a cradle-to-college educational pipeline. The next is mixed-income housing—we built 101 apartments and townhouses. The final component is community health, and the Accelerator plays a big part with community programming, education, enrichment, entertainment, and entrepreneurship.
Josh Shelton, AIA, principal, El Dorado: What was really interesting about the process was that Seventy Five North and [development partner] Brinshore brought in us, Landon Bone Baker, and Alley Poyner Macchietto, and they didn’t hand the keys over to one firm to make a master plan. Rather, they asked us to all develop one collaboratively before we got to work on the specific parts that we were to design as architects. So it was a really thoughtful, really comprehensive approach that allowed full engagement across the board.
What did you want from the design for the Accelerator?
OM: We wanted to make an announcement that things were different and that things were happening in this neighborhood. When somebody drives down 30th Street and they see this building, I want them to want to stop and turn in. One of the challenges we have is bringing people to this neighborhood and making people want to stay.
How did El Dorado approach the design of the Accelerator?
JS: The site was challenging, because it slopes more than 40 feet, so the building becomes almost a retaining element. We were able to elevate one part of the site and create an open green space. The lower portion of the site, the other side of the “retaining wall,” became something more light industrial where cars and deliveries are happening, but it’s no less public.
The complex holds educational institutions, offices, an event space, a food hall, incubator spaces, and even aquaponics. How did you curate these tenants?
OM: A big part of it was: “Who is bringing something that doesn’t currently exist here?” We didn’t want to create a social services campus, we wanted to create an enrichment campus, where people had access to things that didn’t previously exist in this neighborhood. Everybody brings something that helps to elevate people in terms of living up to their potential. We ran everything through that filter. Is it aspirational? Is this going to help people live better lives?
It holds a lot of organizations but makes each space distinct. How did you design for that?
JS: When the design started to really unfold, we had a building with no back door because there were so many programmatic opportunities that every inch and every façade seemed to evolve toward opening up in a unique way for the tenants’ potential program. But the building can’t be all just front door. I think of the Accelerator as this kind of walk-up facility where you can have access to all these different tenants in a very immediate way. We avoided the use of long corridors to connect tenant spaces and really tried to use the generosity of the site dimensions to allow easy access to each space from the parking lot or street. We wanted to create a material palette that was economical and durable, but there was a desire for the building to be something “more” in the most general sense of that definition of that word. We were interested in how these simple materials could promote a dynamic presence, but also enhance performance.
Now that the Accelerator and other parts of the plan are open, how has the community responded?
OM: We told people we were going to do X, Y, and Z, and people trust you if you deliver. I’m seeing people come to the event space three or four times a week. People want to stay in the neighborhood and celebrate life in this place. I think in neighborhoods like ours, where so many promises have been broken, keeping your word goes a long way.
Project: The Accelerator at Highlander, Omaha, Neb.
Development Partnership: Brinshore Development . Richard Sciortino (principal), Todd Lieberman (executive vice president); Seventy Five North . Othello Meadows (principal and CEO), Cydney Franklin (senior project director)
Owners Representative: Project Solutions
Architect: El Dorado, Kansas City, Mo. . Josh Shelton, AIA (principal-in-charge); Sean Slattery, AIA (associate principal); Grace Broeder, Mark Horne, AIA (project architects)
Master Plan: El Dorado; Landon Bone Baker Architects, Chicago, Ill.; Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Omaha, Neb.
Structural Engineer: Bob D Campbell & Co.
M/E/P Engineer: PKMR Engineers
Civil Engineer: Ehrhart Griffin and Associates
Landscape Architect: Site Design Group
Lighting Design: Derek Porter Studio
Greenhouse and Hydroponics Design: Rough Brothers
Aquaculture Design: HTH AquaMetrics
Life Safety and Codes: Code Consultant Services
Size: 73,300 square feet