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Omaha's old Sheelytown area poised for $155 million in new developments

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Two proposed projects — a newly constructed health and recreational campus and a 200-unit residential community — could change the landscape of an aging neighborhood near 27th and Martha Streets.

New homes. New sports fields. A health-centric campus. Sweeping change could be coming to a historically ethnic enclave that longtime South Omahans fondly refer to as old Sheelytown.

To be sure, hurdles remain for the pair of potential development sites within a swath that stretches north several blocks from Vinton Street and 28th Avenue.

And not everyone in the tucked-away area is on board with all of the proposed shifts.

Still, preparations are in motion for a transformation that would be unlike any other in recent decades in or around the pocket nicknamed after the Sheely Brothers, Jewish German immigrants who operated a meatpacking plant on the turf annexed by Omaha in 1887.

“I knew one day this was going to come,” said John Rapaich, who lives in the area and ran A&R Salvage for 20 years before selling the business to one of the developers involved. “In the overall picture, I think this is great for South Omaha. Huge.”

campus 1

A health and recreational campus, known as The Intersections, is proposed for a 25-acre site near South 28th and Martha Streets. The project would include buildings for eSports, action sports, fitness training and medical and wellness services as well as turf fields.

Here’s what he refers to:

The World-Herald reported in December on an estimated $100 million plan by Community Health Development Partners to turn 25 acres of primarily industrial property, including A&R Salvage, into a campus featuring recreational facilities, an electronic sports arena and for-profit health care programming.

More details have since emerged about The Intersections project, including that a defunct grain elevator about 150 feet tall is to be demolished on the campus. In its place would rise a replica likely to feature rock-climbing or a zip line.

Also, the newspaper has learned of another developer’s $55 million plan to rebuild a few acres of property — north of the proposed CHDP campus — into a residential community featuring 200 newly built homes for low- to moderate-income workers.

Led by Neeraj Agarwal, a principal at Clarity, that housing component would require razing a long-defunct social service and warehouse complex near 25th and Center Streets to make way for a five-story, 176-unit apartment building and 24 row houses.

The housing would rise on and around the spot where a Salvation Army once rehabilitated addicts and homeless men and, before that, where Kellogg’s workers had cooked up Sugar Pops and other cereals.

The new construction would be nestled amid older neighborhoods whose homes date back as far as the late 1800s.

Each of the row houses would have three bedrooms and a two-car garage. The 176 apartments would offer either one or two bedrooms and come with a parking space.

A fitness center, playground and community lounge would be highlights of the venture to be financed in large part by low-income housing tax credits. Construction would start in spring of 2023, if all goes as the developer hopes.

Agarwal had been exploring the former Salvation Army site for about five years, and ultimately opted to build anew rather than renovate, saying preservation was not financially feasible.

He believes the new housing could be a catalyst for further redevelopment of the area whose allure includes proximity to midtown and downtown and quick Interstate access.

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A former Salvation Army site planned for development of a housing complex near 28th Street from north of Martha Street in Omaha.

“It is a fairly quiet area,” Agarwal said. “Until somebody starts taking action to improve it, other developers won’t even have it on their radar.”

After learning of each other’s proposals, Agarwal and CHDP now are working with the City of Omaha to designate the project areas as blighted, a step necessary before they can be eligible for a tax-increment financing subsidy. A community input meeting is to be held Jan. 19, Agarwal said, at 6 p.m. at the Redfield building, 1901 Howard St.

Jenny Synowiecki, a teacher who grew up in the area, has been speaking out with concerns about The Intersections project and that some of the eight homeowners along 28th Avenue felt pressure to sell their homes to its developer. She’s also alarmed that possible future expansion of the health and recreation campus might gobble up residences farther north of those eight homes, including those owned by her mom and dad.

“My concern is the people essentially are going to be forced out,” Synowiecki said. “Don’t scream ‘community development’ if you’re taking people’s homes. I think that’s wrong.”

David Lutz, a spokesman for CHDP, said in response that his development group met individually and in a group with property owners along 28th Avenue that backed up to the main part of The Intersections site. Two households don’t want to sell. Lutz said the campus could move forward without their land.

“It would just have created a better site plan for us,” he said.

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Homes along a current area planned for development of a sports complex near 28th Avenue from about Vinton to Martha Streets in Omaha.

Eleanor Baysinger and her sister, Cindy Mahnke, live in one of the hold-out households. Baysinger said their beef is financial. “I told them, ‘Money talks, B.S. walks.’"

Baysinger said she and her husband moved into the house to assist her sister, who is physically handicapped. The sister has lived there for more than 30 years and recently installed a ramp on the 828-square-foot ranch-style home built in 1890.

“Heck, you can’t even buy another house for what they want to give you,” Baysinger said, noting special needs of her husband and sister. She said the CHDP offered about $177,000 for their home and land. Currently the house is valued for tax purposes at $103,000.

When asked about the numerous other residences (Lutz estimates there are about 40) near the planned health complex, Lutz said his group hadn’t reached out — at least not yet — because their homes weren’t as close or integral to the project site.

If future phases and expansion are considered, he said, the development team would follow the same steps as with the 28th Avenue residents.

Interviews with neighbors reinforce the history and bonds that exist in the unofficial Polish village of Sheelytown, loosely defined as Vinton Street north to Edward Creighton Boulevard and 24th Street west to 35th Street.

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The South Omaha pocket know as Sheelytown was named after the Sheely Brothers, Jewish German immigrants who operated a meatpacking plant on the turf annexed by Omaha in 1887.

World-Herald stories recall the neighborhood as having been settled by Irish laborers pushed out by Polish immigrants who were known as gritty, blue-collar fans of street dances, weeklong weddings and taverns.

Lore has it that back in the 1960s, Sheelytown fought Omaha’s I-480 Interstate highway, but it still came through and split the area’s main street in half.

Rapiach proudly claims his South Omaha roots — and even painted “Sheelytown” up the side of a vintage brick house he just rehabbed with items from his recently sold A&R Salvage business. The historically preserved house is around a bend from the group of houses targeted by CHDP.

Rapiach, however, sold another house along 28th Avenue to the CHDP team. He called their handling of the sale transparent and fair.

Neighbor Allen Vopalka agreed. He said his family goes back to the 1880s in Sheelytown. He and his mom now live side by side on 28th Avenue, and chose to sell their properties to CHDP despite having created a backyard oasis complete with a 30,000-gallon pond filled with fish and ducks.

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A drone image of the area planned for development of a sports complex near 28th Avenue from about Vinton to Martha Streets in Omaha.

Moving will be bittersweet, said Vopalka, 63. He said he loved the privacy, and the fact that neighbors never complained about his motorcycles or his loud Independence Day parties.

“But the situation here is going to change,” he said, whether he sold his property or not. Vopalka believes his family got a “more than fair deal” and found a new home on a Bellevue acreage. They’ll be out of the project site area by April, he said, as CHDP hopes to begin construction next fall.

“To be honest, I’m good with it,” Vopalka said. “There hasn’t been any development down here for decades.”

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A drone image of the area planned for development of a sports complex near 28th Avenue from about Vinton to Martha Streets in Omaha. Farther north, on the other side of Martha Street, is the old Salvation Army site where a housing development is proposed.

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