Plans to transform the vacant Pershing Center into a vibrant retail, residential and civic development took a small step forward Wednesday.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the project be found in conformance with the city's Comprehensive Plan for land use and that the zoning on the site should be changed from public to the same B-4 business zoning that covers most of downtown.
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 bounded by Centennial Mall and 16th, M and N streets, including 100 affordable housing units, small retail uses, a wellness center, a child care center, underground parking and a community green space.
Also included in the proposal is a 90,000-square-foot, three-level public library that would replace the existing Bennett Martin Library, although that is subject to voters approving a bond issue to pay for it.
Lincoln City Libraries Director Pat Leach said she's excited about the prospect of locating the new library in the development and sees "synergies" between the library and the proposed uses that could draw more people to the site.
Though city officials and the developer are both counting on having the library there, failure of a bond issue will not scuttle the redevelopment project.
White Lotus CEO Arun Agarwal said he's already fielded inquiries from government entities, health care providers, educational institutions and corporate users who may be interested in the site and said he's "pretty confident there are alternates out there" if the library project does not materialize.
Because the project will utilize tax-increment funding, the developers and the city must negotiate a redevelopment agreement.
Urban Development Director Dan Marvin said that as part of that agreement, the city will "obtain some option on the property" to put another public use there if voters do not approve a bond issue for a new library.
Marvin said that once the redevelopment agreement has been finalized and approved by the City Council, demolition of the Pershing Center building will go forward, possibly sometime later this year. However, new development is not likely to start until after a vote on the library bond, which could be on the ballot next year.
Planning documents list White Lotus' investment at somewhere between $25 million and $30 million, with the entire project likely to cost more than $65 million with the library included. The project includes $3 million to $4 million in TIF, money that comes from the increased property taxes the development will generate and can be used to pay for certain elements of the project, such as demolition costs and streetscape improvements.
Leach said initial estimates for a new library have been in the $50 million range, but design work is just starting and officials are likely to have a more accurate cost estimate once a design is finalized.
Planning commissioners had nothing but good things to say about the project, noting that it "checks all the boxes" for what the Downtown Master Plan envisions for the Pershing site.
"I think when we talk about public-private partnerships in the city of Lincoln, this is exactly what we're looking for," said Commissioner Tom Beckius.
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