Omaha’s Riverfront: A Land of Perpetual Possibility

Natalie Kammerer


Most people who have lived in Omaha for more than a couple of years have had some occasion to visit the Gene Leahy Mall that sprawls from the east side of the W. Dale Clark library toward the river. Anyone who’s been in the neighborhood in the past two years has surely noticed the massive construction site that sits there now.

During his mayoral term (1969-1973), Eugene A. Leahy wanted to encourage Omahans to turn their attention back to the city’s downtown area. In the postwar decades, the city had expanded rapidly to the west and several neglected pockets of downtown were becoming “blighted,” “deteriorated,” or “ragged.”[1] Mayor Leahy planted the seed for a riverfront redevelopment project when, in 1970, he assigned a committee “to ‘take cognizance’ of the potential of the riverfront in the area.”[2] An expansive plan was put together and presented to Blair, Carter Lake, Omaha, Council Bluffs, and Bellevue in the hope of realizing an expansive multi-city riverfront presence. A $1-million federal grant was awarded to the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) to help with the first year of development planning.[3]

Mayor Leahy’s vision was popularly referred to as the “return to the river” movement.[4] The city of Omaha had, of course, been born along the river – many of the “blighted” downtown structures were remnants of Omaha’s early industrial days, when the riverfront was bustling with railroad and river freight, smelting, the various industries housed in Jobber’s Canyon, as well as most of the city’s stores and entertainment venues.

After leaving the office of the mayor, Eugene Leahy moved straight into serving as President of the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation. Settling on a plan proved to be a long process. As exciting as the prospect of coordinating simultaneous development projects across city, county, and state lines was, it proved difficult to get all on board.

Concrete ideas for Omaha’s riverfront development featuring open green spaces with walkways and waterways were proposed by City Planning Director Alden Aust in the early 1970s. The development  was known as Central Park Mall, and was modeled after successful waterway park projects in San Antonio and Fort Worth.[5]

The City Council dedicated $2.37 million to acquiring land downtown for the Central Park Mall project. There was talk of additional groups purchasing land for other development projects—apartment buildings and a UNO education facility, as well as the corrections center and library that stand today. In 1973, representatives of the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation projected that $185 million in construction would occur downtown by 1985.[6]

The final plan was designed in 1974 by a team from Lawrence Halprin & Associates, led by Don Carter.[7] The first section of the park – one city block directly east of the W. Dale Clark library, was completed in the summer of 1977. At the opening ceremony, City Planning Director Aust celebrated turning a new page for Omaha’s identity, saying: “Today Omaha joins the ranks of the great cities of the Western world with a new public open space.”[8] The rest of the $15 million project, which would connect this western end of the park to Heartland of America Park, would be completed over the next four years.

The June 1977 opening ceremony for the Central Park Mall, which only covered one block at the time. Image courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald.

In 1992, the Central Park Mall was renamed the Gene Leahy Mall, in honor of Omaha’s former mayor and the visionary force behind the “return to the river” movement.

Not all of the riverfront plan was realized—for example, there was Friendship Fountain, whose design the Riverfront Communities Development Foundation commissioned from sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The Friendship Fountain was proposed as a feature celebrating the close relationship between Omaha and Council Bluffs, and would have been a 160-foot structure literally between them, sprouting out of the Missouri River. One 1974 Omaha World-Herald editorial noted that “…the fountain plan has not received a warm reception in either of the states whose friendship it would symbolize…”[9] and suggested that it be reconsidered. Indeed, there were questions raised about its appearance, but also about the complicated issue of how to share high installation, maintenance, and operation costs on a structure between city and state lines. The design, which was conceived to incorporate spraying water directed by manufactured wind, attracted lots of critical attention, comparing it to “an oil derrick or the spidery towers that carry high-tension wires.”[10] It was ultimately scrapped.

Models for the Friendship Fountain, 1974. Images courtesy of (left) Isamu Noguchi Original Collection, and (right) Sunday World-Herald Midlands News, August 8, 1976. p. 1B. 

And today, as has been the case for about two years, the Omaha Riverfront is undergoing yet another reinvention and revitalization to adapt to another wave of investment and development in the downtown and riverfront areas. The overarching concept is the same—an artistically conceived park space to integrate some natural elements into the downtown area. But there are some changes. The new design seems to focus on providing more usable space—wide open lawns for events and performances, tree-lined areas full of tables and seating, playground equipment (including the iconic slides!), and a few water features, as well. The new park is scheduled to open in the summer of 2022 (with a final completion date in 2024), 45 years after the grand opening of the first segment of the Central Park Mall. Digital projections of the new design, as well as a progress camera showing weekly photos of the construction site can be found here:

[1] “Return to the River.” Sunday World-Herald Magazine of the Midlands. February 18, 1973. p. 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kelly, Michael. “A Brief History of Omaha’s Gene Leahy Mall.” Omaha World-Herald. June 13, 2018.

[5] Kelly, Michael. “Aust: Don’t Sink Mall’s Waterway.” Omaha World-Herald. November 3, 1975. p. 1.

[6] Kelly, Michael. “Downtown Is Mostly Omaha Owned.” Omaha World-Herald. November 14, 1973. p. 25.

[7] “Gene Leahy Mall.” The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

[8] Kelly, Michael. “City Takes First Green Step to River.” Omaha World-Herald. June 4, 1977.

[9] “Friendship Fountain: Is It Worth It?” Omaha World-Herald Editorials. December 29, 1974. p. 16B.

[10] Ibid.

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