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City of Lincoln's desire for active uses more often means empty first-floor retail space

It’s all about eyes on the street, no matter what you call it. 

Buildings like Education Square in downtown Lincoln, with its imposing brick wall lining the street, are passé.

The current emphasis is on windows and doors and first-floor areas that invite people to look in or walk in as they stroll past.

For a number of years planners have encouraged first-floor retail space, particularly in business districts.

And in the case of projects drawing funds from tax increment financing, where the city has some control over the developments, putting retail and similar uses on the first floor has been a requirement.

But a number of the new building owners have been unable to find tenants and many first-floor spaces around downtown Lincoln and in the West Haymarket sit empty.

The Olsson building, along Canopy Street, has several retail stores, a restaurant/bar, coffee shop, sandwich shop, and is one of the retail first-floor success stories.

But the Latitude, a student apartment complex at 10th and N, has painted its first-floor windows to mask an empty area.

In the last year Urban Development staff have changed the language they use -- from first-floor retail to “active edges" or "active uses." And they’ve broadened their language on what is appropriate for ground-level spaces in business areas.

The goal is the same -- an inviting, vibrant sidewalk area, says David Landis, Urban Development Department director.

The phrase "active edge" is meant to get foot traffic and the flow of activity in and out of buildings, Landis said.

It’s meant to imply uses broader than traditional retail -- a day care center, a fitness center, even offices, said Landis, in describing the new term he brought to the City Council last month and which appears in the new Downtown Master Plan.

"Active uses" stems from the “eyes on the street” concept credited to urban sociologist Jane Jacobs over 50 years ago. Jacobs stressed that cities needed to have sidewalks where pedestrians feel welcome and safe.

The goal is human activity in the downtown area, Landis said. More than just cars on the streets.

Downtown retail is suffering from the same problems as retail in general, with the closing of major stores like Shopko, Younkers and Sears, Landis said. 

The city has always looked at uses beyond traditional retail, but the language now better signals that to developers, he said.   

For example Urban Development staff are talking with a developer now who wants residential on the first floor, and the department is “responding positively,” Landis said.

However the city does not want parking in those ground-level spaces and the gray look that goes with traditional garage space, he said.

Councilman Jon Camp periodically questions the city’s Urban Development staff about these empty first-floor areas of newly developed or redeveloped properties and whether it is a good idea to require developers to build space that no one leases.

Camp says he recognizes that it is good to have activities on the first floor that are appealing, rather than blank walls.

But he thinks “developers should have more flexibility on first floors," so they don’t end up with empty space. That flexibility is particularly important “in this age where there is a need for downtown parking,” he said.

Landis defends the first-floor requirement during these discussions. “The goal of the active first-floor edge is the safe pedestrian experience. So there are eyes on the street, open doors, transparency; the sense of safety that comes when you are in the heart of a civic area,” he said in a council meeting last month.

“If you think about the state garage across from Pershing and you think about walking that block, you just don’t want to do it. You want to turn around and find your car and drive somewhere else,” he said.

"That’s why we ask for active first-floor edges. Two or three years ago we would have said retail. We have updated our language,” he told Camp and the rest of the council. 

The city has no numbers for these empty storefronts, but a market analysis by NAI FMA Realty indicates a 13.5 percent vacancy rate in the downtown business district.

Lincoln is not alone with a downtown that has walls and parking structures and other uses that don't convey movement of people, said J.J. Folsom, with PUMA, the consulting firm that worked on Lincoln's Downtown Master Plan. 

"It's a pretty dead space," he said. And part of the new master plan is to encourage active uses on the ground floor, he said. 

Lincoln could look at interim nonactive uses, like office or residential, but build those ground floors with high ceilings, so they might be converted into retail space in another decade, he said. 

Retail on the first floor is what everyone would like to see, said Richard Meginnis, with NAI FMA. But there aren’t enough retail tenants currently willing to take all that space.

He’s seen the city become more flexible on first-floor uses in light of the problems attracting retail.

See what's going up in Lincoln

See what's going up in Lincoln

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Dawes seventh-graders make some intramural history

Their warm-ups were deceiving.

Their numbers made it easy to underestimate them.

Their school — the city’s smallest public middle school tucked into a northeast Lincoln neighborhood in the shadow of Northeast High School, the Havelock yards, and the University of Nebraska’s land — didn’t draw 60 kids to the intramural basketball tryouts.

All of which is why, when people asked which teams made the finals, the answer inspired incredulity.

“Dawes? Seriously?”

Um, yes, — and the seven Dawes Middle School Diamondbacks who made up the top seventh-grade team won the championship — ending the season undefeated.

“It didn’t even feel real at that point,” said Brittney Hodges-Bolkovac, the Dawes athletic director who was cheering on her team when they beat Scott Middle School 54-50 last week, securing the trophy in the championship series begun several years ago.

The athletic director knew that this was a bigger deal than the Dawes seventh-graders probably realized, that the little north side school winning against bigger, more affluent teams on the south side of the city — the teams where most of the kids played on competitive club teams — meant something.

“I told the kids, this is a big thing for northeast Lincoln — you’re more than the seventh-graders at Dawes,” she said.

Those boys represented all the alumni liking Hodges-Bolkovac’s photos and updates on social media, not just Dawes parents, students and teachers, but parents whose kids might not go to Dawes but who remember walking those halls themselves, and the folks who’ve lived in northeast Lincoln for generations.

Hodges-Bolkovac gets that this is intramurals, not a high school championship, and there weren’t crowds of people filling the North Star bleachers for the championship or crowding into the small middle school gyms where most of the games were played.

But they were underdogs who came out on top.

“It’s the first time Dawes won a championship in basketball,” said Devon Merrill, one of the players.

Intramurals is a different animal than select or club sports: Everybody gets to play and schools typically field two to three teams.

That means at many schools, the students on the “A” team have the most experience and likely have played a significant amount of basketball.

At Dawes, 13 seventh-graders tried out, seven of whom were on the “A” team that won the championship. Six students — some of whom had never played basketball — were on the “B” team. Three of the A team members played some of both.

Their skill levels were mixed: Three of the boys played on a club team — though one of those students had experience in other sports but not basketball. Some of the other boys played on YMCA teams, or shot baskets at recess.

Having a small team meant there was little depth on the bench. At the first game, one player was injured and another was gone: that meant nobody on the bench. But they won that game, and they kept on winning.

Mackenzie Burk, their coach, stressed working as a team.

She and Hodges-Bolkovac stressed sportsmanship and being humble. They wouldn’t run up the score on another team.

“We’ve been on the other side of that,” Burk said.

The coaches talked to the players about what’s important: High school coaches don’t just look at raw talent, they look at academics and how well students work with coaches and other players, Hodges-Bolkovac said.

They had a rule: Anybody with a C or missing class assignments had to go to study hall before they could practice.

It was hard at first — there were competing egos and differences between Dawes coaches and those who coached some of the boys on the club team, but as the season went on, things began to jell.

“The longer we played together it came more naturally,” said player Jack Sindelar.

The opposing teams would size them up — and they didn’t put it all on the court for those warm-up drills.

“It looked like it was 5 in the morning and we’d gotten (them) out of bed,” Hodges-Bolkovac said.

Until the games started.

At the championship, like the rest of the season, everybody played a part.

Adam Tong — small but fast and a great rebounder — made the first basket. They were up by 18 points at the half, then fell behind.

They fought back. Kajaun Sidney’s three-pointer got them back in the lead, set the tone. In the final minutes of the game Kendall Hinton grabbed some pivotal rebounds and K.G. Gatwech’s free throws ended the game.

“It felt good,” said Mason Ford, who protected the ball.

Hodges-Bolkovac said the team’s success shows more than the talent of players, it says something about the community Dawes has built.

“They’re from all different backgrounds, there were all these dynamics and we were able to come together for a common thing.”

Breaking down Lincoln's public schools

Breaking down Lincoln's public schools: Enrollment, test scores and more

Nati Harnik, The Associated Press 

Nebraska coach Amy Williams turns to her bench during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa in Lincoln, Neb., Monday.

Associated Press file photo 


House to query 60 Trump officials in obstruction probe

WASHINGTON — Declaring it's "very clear" President Donald Trump obstructed justice, the chairman of the House committee in charge of impeachment says the panel is requesting documents today from more than 60 people from Trump's administration, family and business as part of a rapidly expanding Russia investigation.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the House Judiciary Committee wants to review documents from the Justice Department, the president's son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly and former White House counsel Don McGahn also are likely targets, he said.

"We are going to initiate investigations into abuses of power, into corruption and into obstruction of justice," Nadler said. "We will do everything we can to get that evidence."

Asked if he believed Trump obstructed justice, Nadler said, "Yes, I do."

Nadler isn't calling the inquiry an impeachment investigation but said House Democrats, now in the majority, are simply doing "our job to protect the rule of law" after Republicans during the first two years of Trump's term were "shielding the president from any proper accountability."

"We're far from making decisions" about impeachment, he said.

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump blasted anew the Russia investigation, calling it a partisan probe unfairly aimed at discrediting his win in the 2016 presidential election. "I am an innocent man being persecuted by some very bad, conflicted & corrupt people in a Witch Hunt that is illegal & should never have been allowed to start - And only because I won the Election!" he wrote.

Nadler's comments follow a bad political week for Trump. He emerged empty-handed from a high-profile summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization and Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in three days of congressional testimony, publicly characterized the president as a "con man" and "cheat."

Newly empowered House Democrats are flexing their strength with blossoming investigations. A half-dozen House committees are now probing alleged coordination between Trump associates and Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election, Trump's tax returns and possible conflicts of interest involving the Trump family business and policy-making. The House oversight committee, for instance, has set a deadline for today for the White House to turn over documents related to security clearances after The New York Times reported that the president ordered officials to grant his son-in-law Jared Kushner's clearance over the objections of national security officials.

Nadler's added lines of inquiry also come as special counsel Robert Mueller is believed to be wrapping up his work into possible questions of Trump campaign collusion and obstruction in the Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged he did not witness or know directly of collusion between Trump aides and Russia but had his "suspicions."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Sunday accused House Democrats of prejudging Trump as part of a query based purely on partisan politics.

"I think Congressman Nadler decided to impeach the president the day the president won the election," McCarthy said. "Listen to exactly what he said. He talks about impeachment before he even became chairman and then he says, 'you've got to persuade people to get there.' There's nothing that the president did wrong."

"Show me where the president did anything to be impeached ... Nadler is setting the framework now that the Democrats are not to believe the Mueller report," he said.

Nadler said Sunday his committee will seek to review the Mueller report but stressed the investigation "goes far beyond collusion."

He pointed to what he considered several instances of obstruction of justice by the president, including the "1,100 times he referred to the Mueller investigation as a 'witch hunt'" as well as Trump's abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey in 2017. According to Comey, Trump had encouraged the then-FBI director to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump has denied he told Comey to end the Flynn probe.

"It's very clear that the president obstructed justice," Nadler said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has kept calls for impeachment at bay by insisting that Mueller first must be allowed to finish his work, and present his findings publicly — though it's unclear whether the White House will allow its full release.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House intelligence committee, on Sunday also stressed that it's too early to make judgments about impeachment.

"That is something that we will have to await Bob Mueller's report and the underlying evidence to determine. We will also have to look at the whole body of improper and criminal actions by the president including those campaign finance crimes to determine whether they rise to the level of removal from office," Schiff said.

Nadler and McCarthy spoke on ABC's "This Week," and Schiff appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."