Nearly seven years after first unveiling plans for the Telegraph District, the Lincoln developers who have overseen the historic transformation of the area near 21st and N streets are taking a moment to breathe.
What started as an ambitious vision in 2015 has nearly come to fruition for Speedway Properties and Nelnet, which partnered to buy more than a dozen properties in the once-blighted area.
"If you would've been here in 2015, this building was empty," Speedway co-founder Clay Smith said as he sat sipping coffee at The Mill's bustling Telegraph District café on a recent morning.
"That building was empty," he continued, pointing across the intersection of 21st and L streets at what used to be the windowless headquarters for Windstream, now transformed into a modern workspace for more than 500 Nelnet employees.
People are also reading…
"The (Frank H. Woods Telephone Pioneer) museum was open one or two days a month. The next block — the only active building there was a car wash. So we had blocks upon blocks of just vacant land."
Now, after renovating three historical buildings — including the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Co. warehouse — and having opened two luxury apartment and mixed-use buildings with a third under construction, developers are taking a break, one that could double as a victory lap.
Sitting in a crowded coffee shop, Smith and Lauren Pugliese, the managing director of Nelnet, described the Telegraph District's rise in the way that parents might describe a child's glowing report card — with a sense of pride, and promise of more to come.
"I think it's a signature project," Smith said as he reflected on what the development has meant for his decades-long career in Lincoln. "We're really proud of what we did."
With signed leases in place for most of the district's office space and having filled more than 85% of apartment units, Speedway and Nelnet are pumping the brakes for the first time in seven years.
When construction of Telegraph Lofts West finishes later this year, the $72 million second phase of the district's development will be complete. Smith and Pugliese don't yet have definitive plans for what to expect in Phase III.
Instead, they'll let the market — including Telegraph District residents and the employees of businesses moving into the area — decide what to build next.
"The market will tell us what they want to embrace here, what retailers want to be here," Smith said.
Though housing units are filling up and office space in the area is now scarce, the Telegraph District is still home to a few empty storefronts — a reality that will guide the developers' next move.
Early proposals for the area's development touted plans for a grocery store, a dry cleaner and bike repair shop — none of which have moved into the district. And save for The Mill and Subway, the area is largely void of restaurants.
Smith and Pugliese are as aware of this as anyone — and they hinted that new tenants could sign leases over the next few months.
The developers pinned the hesitancy of retailers on the ongoing effects of the pandemic, which altered dining habits and has left Nebraska with its lowest-ever unemployment rate, creating a labor shortage that has complicated plans for retailers to expand, Smith said.
"It's hard to open a bar when you have a pandemic, or a restaurant," Smith said.
"And a lot of feedback, too, is those retailers are really struggling with staffing," Pugliese said. "At this point, even as the pandemic continues to hopefully wind down and we realize our new normal, it's still the staffing that needs to catch up."
Still, the pandemic didn't ravage the second phase of the Telegraph District's development like it could have, given changing workplace dynamics in the age of Zoom. While downtown Lincoln has seen a loss of office workers and an influx of residents, the Telegraph District has seen increases in both.
Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, Speedway signed leases with Keating O'Gara law firm and the Lincoln Journal Star for Telegraph Lofts East, adding additional office employees to the district that is already home to a Nelnet satellite campus and the headquarters for Allo.
Though it remains incomplete — and will continue to evolve over the next 10 years, Smith said — the district's Monopoly-like redevelopment thus far has marked a stunning turnaround for the area, one made viable by the completion of the Antelope Valley project, the largest public works project in the city's history.
That $246 million project helped remove the area from a flood plain, allowing Speedway and Nelnet to invest in the once-industrial area and help deliver on the Antelope Valley project's promise to spur further development.
"Part of that vision was to try to reenergize this whole area of downtown," said Smith, whose grandfather was an employee at Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph in the mid-1900s, working at the buildings Smith would later help redevelop.
"And so the thought of saving these buildings — repurposing them — was really just part of the vision."
The district has already delivered on its initial promise to preserve the historic buildings and transform the corridor into a modern hub of social activity and luxury living.
Now, as the pandemic hopefully fades and a new normal emerges, the developers face another challenge: What's next?
Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @andrewwegley
In this Series
- 27 updates