An ambitious plan to bring the elevated lanes of Interstate 480 down to street level would help Creighton University’s campus become better integrated into downtown Omaha, the university’s president said Monday.
The Rev. Daniel Hendrickson said $250 million in improvement projects already are underway on campus. Those projects would complement the Greater Omaha Chamber’s urban core plan, which would breathe more life into Omaha’s midtown, downtown and riverfront areas.
In the chamber’s vision for improving the city’s urban core over the next 20 years, officials envision 30,000 more workers and 30,000 more residents in the area stretching from midtown Omaha through downtown and to the river’s edge in Council Bluffs.
Creighton’s campus sits roughly east of U.S. Highway 75, west of 16th Street, north of I-480 and south of Cuming Street, which is part of the area targeted by the chamber for its redevelopment plan.
Creighton officials already are working on improvements to campus. Projects that are underway or in the planning stages include a new health sciences facility, playing fields, a campus quad and a Jesuit residence. Those projects are being completed with $250 million in donor funding, Hendrickson said.
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As for the chamber’s plans, Hendrickson said he’s most excited about ideas for removing Interstate ramps at 19th, 20th and 30th Streets, as well as lowering the elevated portions of I-480.
Both projects would free up several blocks for new development as well as remove a barrier separating campus from the rest of downtown Omaha.
The aging, elevated I-480 freeway forms a northern barrier for downtown. It would be razed in favor of a slower, street-level boulevard lined by new housing, offices, restaurants and shops.
The streetcar line, which is already in the works, is another highlight. Ideally, Hendrickson said, he would like to see a branch of the system extending closer to or on the university campus.
“The stronger the downtown community, the better for us,” he said. “It’s a visionary, bold, courageous project, and I want Creighton excited about it.”
Creighton’s campus projects include the $75 million CL Werner Center for Health Sciences Education, a five-story facility rising near the I-480 and U.S. Highway 75 interchange at Cuming Street. It will serve as a hub for all of the university’s health sciences schools and colleges. The new center is expected to open in fall 2023.
New playing fields for baseball and softball teams would free up space for a campus quad, which would provide much-needed green space in the heart of campus, Hendrickson said. The ballfields also would be another step toward developing the Cuming Street corridor.
A “next generation library” also is in the works. Hendrickson said that facility would be built in the footprint of Gallagher Hall, a residence hall that is set to be demolished in May. The building would serve the Creighton community as well as the Omaha community at large, Hendrickson said.
In recent years, the university has moved out of some buildings on the western edge of campus.
The former Creighton University Medical Center is now the Atlas apartment complex, a common housing option for Creighton students since its opening in 2018. The building is the metro area’s largest single structure of market-rate apartments.
A highway-spanning pedestrian overpass connects the campus to the apartments, and to the Gifford Park neighborhood to the west.
The university moved its dental school east into the campus in 2018.
“In one small way, we’re retracting campus,” Hendrickson said. “I think we’ve expanded as far as we need and want right now going east. We have a lot of room within our current perimeter.”
Hendrickson was one of several people interviewed while the chamber assembled its urban core plan. In addition to addressing the university’s capital investments over the last several years, he also brought up workforce development.
The university serves about 9,000 students, about half of whom are undergraduates. The majority of Creighton undergrads hail from out of state and about 50% of those students stick around in Omaha for a first job or to pursue continued education, Hendrickson said.
The addition of about 2,000 faculty and staff members leads to a daily community of 11,000 individuals on campus, Hendrickson said. The campus community is part of the “life and vitality of the downtown community.”
The university offers programs spanning the spectrum of health care. But university officials are also adding new programming, such as ones for business leadership and innovation and data analytics.
“We’re steadfast in the programs, which have been here for decades,” Hendrickson said. “We’re also continuing to dream of new programs which meet the needs of the city. We’re stepping up to bring in new faculty, staff and students in those areas.”
Jesuit universities are typically based in urban areas to engage the arts and civic centers of communities, Hendrickson said. The strength, health and synergy of the downtown community is key to the university.
“The downtown community is really the front yard for Creighton,” he added. “It’s where our students work and play and study. Who we are is downtown.”
World-Herald Staff Writer Jessica Wade contributed to this report.