New housing and businesses add diversity to Little Italy

It's still referred to as Omaha's Little Italy.

The area south of downtown Omaha contains storied landmarks such as the Santa Lucia Hall, St. Frances Cabrini Church and Orsi's Bakery and Pizzeria. Visitors still can catch the smell of sweet marinara sauce cooking at a traditional ethnic restaurant or two.

But new housing and business projects are bringing a different diversity and flavor to the city's oldest neighborhood — long held as a key to tourism as it connects the Old Market with the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo.

Today, for instance, the ribbon will be cut on a 47-unit apartment complex that aims to lure young Generation Y professionals to Little Italy. Bluestone Development's 8 Street Apartments project on Eighth and Pacific Streets stands out for its smaller dwellings and urban street decor punctuated by colorful lobby graffiti art.

Set to open next month near 10th and William Streets is the more upscale and energy-conscious CO2 Apartments, which will offer residents their own garden patch and a community coffee house. The glassy complex fills a gap in a block anchored on one end by the 1886 Cornish mansion and, on the other, Cascio's Steak House.

In the works also are projects for arts enthusiasts and veterans, including a 99-seat Blue Barn Theatre at 10th and Pacific Streets and, farther south near Ninth and Dorcas Streets, a multimillion-dollar development of offices and homes for veterans.

City Planner Bridget Hadley said the Little Italy redevelopment efforts help the city's mission of increasing population density around downtown and should spark job creation and investment.

“The city's vision is revitalization within our urban core,” she said.

While the latest initiatives signal more change in the area also called “the Hill” for its steep slopes up from the Missouri River, longtimers like John Bluvas welcome the shifts.

Bluvas, who lives with his wife, Karen, in the house his family has owned since 1923, lamented how commercial activity had diminished over the years. He hopes for further redevelopment of 10th Street buildings, such as the long-vacant Burlington Station and Omaha postal annex.

“We are becoming seniors in the neighborhood,” said Bluvas, 70, president of the Dahlman Neighborhood Association. “But we really enjoy the neighborhood mix. We can see the mix in people walking their dogs, young people walking around Grace University campus. We're glad we're part of it.”

Arnie Breslow, president of the Old Market South Neighborhood Association and co-owner of two of the area's historic mansions, is pushing for even more change. He and a coalition — including neighborhood groups, zoo officials, Omaha By Design and Lamp Rynearson & Associates engineering firm — came up with a redevelopment proposal called Parkway 10.

It promotes 10th Street from downtown to the zoo as a walking corridor that would be dotted by small parks and ground tiles that tell the story of various landmarks. “Most people don't even know that history is there,” said Breslow.

A steel archway over 10th Street at Pierce would lure visitors from the Old Market to take the stroll. A roundabout at the intersection of 10th and Bancroft Streets would lead motorists coming off of the Interstate to tourist attractions such as Lauritzen Gardens, the Old Market and the zoo.

Boutique hotels ideally would be built near the roundabout, said Breslow, who helped create a nonprofit group called District 68108 to raise money to carry out the vision.

Meanwhile, he said, the nine-unit C02 Apartments already has incorporated elements of the plan, including diagonal parking and a park area that features a fountain, a fire pit and garden patches for individual residents.

The CO2 project, developed by Nancy Mammel, also is to be a LEED-certified building.

Mammel said she was drawn to the site because she loves old neighborhoods, has owned old houses and wanted to do something thoughtful for the area. When she is in Omaha, she plans to stay in the building with friends who plan to rent there.

Mammel also donated the former Angie's Italian restaurant land upon which the Blue Barn will be built and said she wants other plots she owns around that property to be used for “out of the box” projects.

“It's exciting,” Mammel said. “In five to seven years that is going to be a totally changed area.”

Little Italy is luring Omahans like Helen and Martin Desilets, a couple in their 70s who love their place in the Old Market but want to move to the fringe and a quieter area with a slower pace.

“It's getting a little noisier down here, particularly at night,” said Helen Desilets. She is awed by the view from the upper floors of the CO2 and wants to rent there.

“We can still walk back and forth to the Old Market,” she said, adding with a laugh: “If we couldn't, we'd get a scooter.”

Longtime neighborhood resident Nancy Calinger is thankful for the progress and understands why others are pulled to her childhood stomping grounds.

By her estimation, only about 10 percent of the Italians who grew up in the area still live there. Some, including Syl Orsi, who redeveloped a 100-plus-year building into the Dunsany condos, helped fueled the transformation.

Relative newcomers to the area include a few entertainment-focused businesses, a salon and a retail store that moved to storefronts near 10th and Mason Streets.

The Italy-inspired Giovanna's 16 row houses at Sixth and Pierce Streets opened four years ago. Nearby are the 35 town houses called the Towns at Little Italy.

Bluestone Development, which developed the Towns, today officially opens the 8 Street Apartments.

It was designed by Lincoln architects Studio 951 and built by Lincoln contractor Brester Construction. Bluestone said it has had great success elsewhere in downtown with small studios, and the 8 Street Apartments fits with the urban design of the neighboring Towns.

“You can live really well in 650 square feet,” said Debra Christensen of Bluestone. “People want to be close to downtown and the entertainment area.”

Mayor Jim Suttle is expected to introduce the apartment project along with Bluestone's Christian and Debra Christensen. Neighborhood supporters like Breslow welcome the latest residential wave.

“Can things get more modern and zingy than some of us would like?” asked Breslow. “Yes, but if you don't go forward, you go backward.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1224, [email protected]

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