Je Ne Sais Quoi (Historic Preservation in Omaha)

Historic Preservation 2Purpose
Omaha is a city rich with character and historic architecture. Although there is a wide range of parties invested in building Omaha’s future, these stakeholders struggle to find a common vision for the city’s historic buildings. Tension from past debates and decisions has a significant impact on current discussions. We hope to lay the groundwork for deeper relationships and more positive communication on historic preservation options in the development process. An environment of communication and mutual respect will support a well-balanced vision of the city’s future that retains its unique identity.

We brought together a group of architects, historic preservation experts, and property developers who care about Omaha. We facilitated a discussion exploring the city’s architectural identity; the existing development and design process; and the group’s aspirations for a planning process that allows more effective examination of preservation options.

Conversation is powerful. Our project brought together architects, preservation experts, and property developers to talk about historic preservation in development decisions around Omaha. Many of our attendees already had professional relationships. Most had at least heard of the others in the room. Even so, with a few hours of structured, intentional dialogue, they encountered new ideas and perspectives. The group also discovered that they faced similar challenges.

Questions and conversations touched on the participants’ favorite Omaha locations; the elements that create Omaha’s identity; the role of historic preservation; Historic Preservationthe current state of the property development process in Omaha; and potential improvements to that process, especially as these improvements impact preservation outcomes. The diversity of the group was a plus as they brought different approaches to the topic. One participant expressed that she’d gotten “amazing insight” from hearing a developer’s point of view.

Participants kept up a brisk and active dialogue throughout the meeting on October 30, 2014. We were impressed with the expertise and passion the group brought to the subject. Everyone seemed to have a degree of sensitivity to historic preservation. Although it was wonderful to experience, it gave our team some challenges with managing the group’s time and capturing complex ideas. We had to find a balance to get through our agenda without cutting their discussions short.

Since we didn’t realize how rich and complex the conversation would be during our planning process, we made some spontaneous adjustments on time and note-taking. If we had another run at the same discussion, we’d establish cues for better communication with each other about these issues. Other than that, we had a great experience working as a team to design and deliver this meeting. Our strengths complimented each other well.

Several participants commented on the lack of representation from the City of Omaha Planning Department during the meeting. The group felt that if city officials had heard the discussion, they could be influenced toward meaningful change. This was interesting as we specifically decided not to include city planning officials. We’d assumed meaningful decisions were made before city officials got involved and wanted to focus the discussion there. We also thought the group might speak less candidly if city officials were present.

We heard positive feedback in side discussions and the plus/delta evaluation that community engagement was a natural extension of the library’s services. They spoke highly of the need for these conversations around our community and the library taking on the roles of host and facilitator. Huzzah!

Posted by Autumn Hill, Suzan Jank, and Mark Sorensen, Facilitators-in-Training

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