Published Monday, July 29, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:47 pm
community design rules
World-Herald editorial: Right design balance for Omaha

Omaha has a reputation for being both forward-looking and practical. That balanced approach is the one our city needs to take in working with companies about the appearance aspects of their new construction.

A recent news article by The World-Herald’s Erin Golden explained how Mayor Jean Stothert’s administration is giving thought to community design issues in light of complaints about the city Planning Department’s heavy-handedness in regulating some development projects during the previous administration.

Stothert has rightly directed the Planning Department to send the signal that the city intends to work with businesses and other entities in productive ways rather than inflexibly dictating to them. The new planning director, when he or she is named by the mayor, no doubt will be making that goal a top priority.

That’s good. Omaha cannot afford to join the list of U.S. cities with reputations for excessive planning regulations and bureaucratic arrogance that choke off development opportunities. Cities need growth.

At the same time, there’s no question that community design standards, when properly formulated and reasonably implemented, have great public value.

Omaha proves it. Look at the attractive appearance and thoughtful design of such developments as Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. Those complexes illustrate what forward-looking cities should aim for when it comes to pragmatic design standards.

Being business-friendly needn’t mean tossing aside sensible appearance requirements.

Across the country, there are many economically successful cities that use community design requirements and have impressive examples of new development that incorporates attractive, locally appropriate designs.

Omaha’s appearance standards were developed through wide-ranging community discussions and have served some key needs. They set out a coherent, citywide appearance approach. They put an end to cookie-cutter box-store designs for new construction. And they require that attention be paid to the particular design needs of individual neighborhoods.

Mayor Stothert says that in the wake of the concerns voiced over the Planning Department’s past actions, it’s time for a new round of discussions on the particulars of Omaha’s design standards and whether they need to be adjusted.

That’s a sound idea. When the City Council voted unanimously in 2007 to approve the specific design requirements under the Omaha By Design initiative, the idea was for the standards to be regularly scrutinized and, when needed, modified.

When it comes to community appearance standards for Omaha, these are some main ingredients for success: Nurture consensus on basic standards. As differences crop up between the city and developers on specific projects, negotiate responsibly to address them. Have city regulators handle matters professionally and diplomatically.

With such an approach, Omaha can strike the right balance.

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