Proponents of redevelopment plans for the block anchored by Pershing Center since 1957 — including building a new city library — told the City Council on Monday that it will be a catalyst to draw people downtown.
“I think this is a terrific project. I think downtown really needs this project,” said Dan Sloan, owner of The Mill and vice president of the Lincoln City Libraries’ board of trustees.
Libraries act as catalysts, he said, to retain and develop the kind of talent Lincoln needs to continue to thrive, and locating the central library downtown speaks volumes about the city’s commitment to access and education.
“Families go where there are great schools and where there are great libraries, and I think this is a good opportunity for that,” he said.
In April, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission unanimously recommended the City Council find that the project — which includes a residential and retail component — conforms with the city’s Comprehensive Plan for land use. The commission also recommended that the city change zoning on the block bounded by Centennial Mall and 16th, M and N streets from public to B-4, a business zone that covers most of downtown.
The council held a public hearing on the project Monday and will vote on the recommendations at its May 17 meeting.
Proponents acknowledged that the council’s approval next week is one of several big hurdles the project must clear.
One of the biggest will be passing a bond issue to pay for the new library, though city officials and the developer say the rest of the project would move forward without it.
Omaha-based White Lotus Development, which was chosen last year over four other developers, is proposing approximately 300,000 square feet of development on the block, including 100 affordable housing units, small retail uses, a wellness center, a child care center, underground parking and a community green space.
Former councilman Carl Eskridge, who was on a committee that reviewed proposals for the block, said there’s been a “for sale” sign on Pershing since the city opened Pinnacle Bank Arena in 2013, and several proposals that came forward several years ago weren’t right, so the city passed on them.
The second round came forward last year, and White Lotus’ proposal was just the kind of “catalyst project” the city had been looking for to bring people into downtown and help grow neighboring projects, Eskridge said.
“When White Lotus made their proposal, that was it,” he said. “That was exactly the kind of thing our community had been looking for for a number of years.”
Although the project would move forward without it, the city hopes to pass a bond issue to build a 90,000-square-foot, three-level public library that would replace the existing Bennett Martin Library.
If the city approves the zoning change and the plan conformance next week, officials must still negotiate a redevelopment agreement with White Lotus, which would include demolition plans for Pershing.
It would also include an option to put another public use in the spot planned for the library if a bond issue were to fail.
Assuming the redevelopment agreement is approved, Pershing could come down later this year, and the library question could be on the ballot next year, said Urban Development Director Dan Marvin.
Planning documents list White Lotus’ investment at somewhere between $25 million and $30 million, and includes $3 million to $4 million in tax-increment financing, money that comes from the increased property taxes the development will generate to pay for certain improvements.
Library director Pat Leach said early estimates put the cost of a new library at $50 million, but design work is just beginning.
Todd Ogden, president of the Downtown Lincoln Association, spoke in favor of the project, and even Jane Kinsey, of Watchdogs of Lincoln, who spoke against building only a new library downtown, said the broader project appears to be an appropriate use of the Pershing site.
But she questioned adding more apartments downtown, saying demand isn’t meeting the number being built, and suggested the city may be “biting off more than it can chew.”
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