Omaha’s Burlington Station, once bustling with cross-continental rail passengers but vacant, sagging and mostly unused for more than 40 years, is due to be rejuvenated.
Omaha TV station KETV plans to buy the historic depot at 10th and Pacific Streets, renovate it and move in by the summer of 2015.
KETV, which is owned by Hearst Television Inc. of New York City, is buying the 48,000-square-foot building and 2.1 acres of land from Myriel “My” Boes, an Omahan who had planned to convert it into condominiums and retail space.
Ariel Roblin, president and general manager of KETV, said Wednesday that the television station has been at 2665 Douglas St. for 50 years, a time of significant change for broadcasting. Station officials, looking for a larger, updated facility, considered several sites and were attracted by the chance to bring a historic building back to life while gaining more operating space.
The project represents a multimillion-dollar investment in Omaha, she said, but she declined to estimate the total cost.
“It allows us to move with the technology,” Roblin said. “We looked at all kinds of options, but this one really made sense to us because it exemplifies what we do. Bringing back an old building to something beautiful and used and honored is important to us.”
KETV’s plan calls for restoring the building’s exterior to its historic appearance, Roblin said, which may qualify for preservation tax credits, and installing the newest technology inside.
“One of the things that rang the most true was everyone’s memories of being in this building,” she said. “We haven’t finalized the plans for the interior yet, but we do have in mind that there is probably going to be some area that people will be able to access so that they can experience what we’ve done and may take a trip down memory lane for themselves.”
The news operation would be on the building’s first floor, with administration, advertising and other departments on the second floor. The site has ample parking. Roblin said plans for the 2665 Douglas property are uncertain.
Constructed in 1898 and extensively remodeled in 1930, the limestone and brick depot has been vacant, while the Union Station just to the north was restored and turned into the Durham Museum, housing historic Omaha artifacts and related exhibits.
Burlington Northern closed the depot in 1971 as rail passenger traffic declined, although today’s Amtrak station just to the east still serves rail passengers. A series of owners had various plans for the structure, including possible offices for downtown Omaha’s Warren Distribution Co.
In 2004, OnTrack Development, an LLC formed by Boes, bought it for $650,000 with plans to transform it into luxury residential and commercial-retail condos along with a restaurant, grocery store and spa. In October 2007, that project was approved with $1.75 million in tax-increment financing part of the deal.
Boes said Thursday that her plan would have been nice, but construction estimates were over budget and the timing turned out to be wrong because of the 2008-2009 recession. She has been working for several months to sell the building to KETV.
“I’m very pleased,” Boes said. “I think they are going to do a good job, and it’s a beautiful building.”
The Burlington Station’s most recent use has been as a venue for occasional theater performances and Omaha Fashion Week events, and also as a backdrop for engagement, graduation and other photography sessions.
Leo A Daly Co. is the architect for the renovation. Roblin said the contractor will be Broadcast Building Co. of Jacksonville, Fla., which specializes in broadcast projects.
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Burlington Train Station history
1898: The station opens at 1001 S. 10th St., in time for Omaha's Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition. Designed by Omaha architect Thomas Kimball, the station resembles a Greek temple, with a portico that incorporates 28 massive granite columns. The station handles both passenger and freight traffic.
1930: Anticipating competition of the new Union Station across the tracks the next year, the Burlington is extensively remodeled. The columns are removed, and 24 go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
1954: Another remodeling adds a parking lot with lights, and a circular drive is constructed.
1971: Burlington closes the depot and leases it to Amtrak.
1974: Amtrak moves out, citing high maintenance costs. The station is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
1983: Four Omahans buy the building, saying they want to convert it into a restaurant and cocktail lounge. Plans are abandoned because of high costs.
1985: Jody Keener, a Cedar Rapids, Neb., businessman, announces plans to spend $3.5 million to turn the structure into a business center with offices, a convention center, shops and restaurants. A bank eventually forecloses.
1989: Warren Distribution, a manufacturer and distributor of automotive products, buys the building for a its headquarters.
1993: Warren Distribution changes its plans and puts the station on the market for $795,000.
1994: Two partners open a short-lived, open-air market .
1997: The Blue Barn Theatre stages “Quills,” a play about the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, at the station. Audiences encounter no heat and only portable restrooms.
2002: The station opens for a public tour during a regional meeting of the National Association of Rail Passengers and ProRail Nebraska.
2004: Warren Distribution sells the station for $650,000 to OnTrack Development, a limited liability corporation formed by Myriel Boes, a Fairacres resident and interior designer.
2006: Boes' partner, Dave Underwood, says architectural changes have put the project behind, but 65 percent of the commercial space is spoken for and four of 15 condos are presold.
2007: The project gets the green light for tax-increment financing but never moves forward because, by this time, the economy is failing.
March 2013: Boes still owns the property and says “changes in the status of the building are in progress,” but declines to give specifics.
June 2013: KETV announces purchase of the building and plans to make it the television station's new home.
Sources: Heartland Railroad Historical Society, World-Herald archives.
Changes to the master plan
The City of Omaha's 2009 downtown master plan called for the renovation of Burlington Station and the surrounding Union Pacific railyards. Planners had high hopes to "develop a marginal site into Omaha's version of Millennium Park." From the masterplan:
Burlington Station Redevelopment – "Burlington Station would be renovated into an inter-modal center. Existing Amtrak operations would be relocated to the track level of Burlington Station, thus opening up a large portion of the site for redevelopment. The now cleared site would be redeveloped with townhouses fronting onto mini-greens that take advantage of the views of Downtown. The additional residential units would enhance the existing neighborhood redevelopment efforts and provide sufficient critical mass for the sustainable redevelopment of this formerly grand landmark."
Aksarben Yard – "The former Union Pacific Railroad Yard adjacent to the Durham Museum creates a grand opportunity to develop a marginal site into Omaha's version of Millennium Park. The site is approximately the same size as Chicago's Navy Pier, and could be developed into a diverse and festive public space. The concept plan includes the following features: Grand Stairs leading down from the 10th Street Bridge; an overhead walkway, reminiscent of that which occurred in the heyday of rail travel, connecting the Burlington MultiModal Center to the Durham Museum; a central market located in the Urban Plaza. This market would operate year-round, and be a center of creativity and activity; a 150-foot ferris wheel and other amusement rides; and a large boat pond suitable for remote controlled boats. During the winter months, the pond would be converted into a skating rink in order to draw visitors during the offseason."