Omaha’s historic Auto Row is driving new development on Farnam Street

December 31, 2018

Omaha’s historic Auto Row is getting a new co-working area, and the enterprise is expected to help jump-start pedestrian activity pivotal to re-igniting that section west of downtown.

When fully occupied, the Populus startup could bring hundreds of entrepreneurs and small-business professionals to the 26th and Farnam Streets area. There, they’d do their own work thing but share a warehouse setting and amenities including a fitness center, conference rooms, coffee pot and even a keg of beer.

It’s just one of the modern-day elements planned to help step up the pace along a stretch best known a century ago as the place to buy and accessorize Studebakers, Cadillacs and other now-classic cars. Also coming to the area once integral to the city’s exploding auto industry are apartment lofts and spaces for restaurants and other new retailers.

In the bigger picture, real estate developers see Farnam Street — and filling in its gaps and empty storefronts — as key to connecting downtown with burgeoning parts of midtown, including the Blackstone District and the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus. Farnam is envisioned as a main artery of a future urban streetcar system whose success depends upon activity and riders.

Other recent development projects trying to shift Auto Row from sleepy to thriving include the rehabilitation of the historic Hupmobile warehouse at 2523 Farnam St. into a mix of uses (the top floor apartments are full; ground floor retail bays are open). A five-story hotel next door to the east is to open as early as next month.

Across the street, longtime neighborhood anchor All Makes has modernized and expanded. The 25 Farnam retail strip next to it offers a spot to sit down with a pastry and latte. Also nearby is a newbie merchant that sells natural foods, wellness shots and detox tonics.

The latest $7.6 million venture involves the pair of old brick buildings just west of All Makes. Recently bought by GreenSlate and Clarity Development investors, the side-by-side structures at 2570 and 2566 Farnam St. have been elevated to the National Register of Historic Places under their original names: Drummond Motor Co. and Firestone Rubber and Tire buildings.

The two-building redevelopment project — to be called Farnam Hill Lofts — will have Populus as an anchor on the top two floors of the Firestone.

At the neighboring Drummond to the west, 24 market-rate loft apartments are being carved out of its upper levels.

The co-working space and apartments are slated to open as early as April or May. Of the combined 60,000 square feet of space in the two buildings, about 12,500 square feet remains mostly on the ground level for future office-users or retailers, said GreenSlate’s Jay Lund.

Designed to be compatible, the Drummond and Firestone share a staircase and offer a live, work-and-play sort of environment. Indeed, Populus founder Micah Yost said he already has had calls from people interested in both securing a work spot and living next door in the apartments.

Yost believes Omaha is ripe for the Populus concept, which he describes as more of a service than traditional office real estate.

“Today, we pay a monthly fee for many of our favorite products like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and in return, those products continue to add value. Why shouldn’t our workspace operate the same way?”

Partners also include GreenSlate, Clarity and Nancy Fager of Fager Excavating. But it was Yost’s struggle in finding a home for his four-person marketing agency, Method Mark, that hatched the idea.

“It was kind of a racket trying to find space for a couple of people,” said Yost, citing expensive upfront costs such as furnishings, and multiple-year lease commitments.

“I don’t know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow,” Yost said, let alone sign a five-year lease. “We’re really focused on flexibility. That’s key for us.”

At Populus, members pay rent monthly, ranging from about $275 to $1,900. They’ll walk into furnished space. A higher-level membership comes with a private office. For a lesser fee, entrepreneurs secure a dedicated desk. For even less, they’d work in common areas of the 10,000-square-foot warehouse space.

All members have access to such amenities as an on-site fitness center, receptionist, fast Wi-Fi and a collaborative work vibe.

Yost said he was drawn to Auto Row because of its urban locale, history and entrepreneurial spirit of its developers. Wherever possible in the two buildings, landlords plan to preserve features such as original terrazzo flooring, high ceilings, brick walls and arches that had been hidden.

At the Drummond, a freight elevator used to move cars up and down is to be enclosed by glass — and serve as a cool architectural feature for the historic tax credit project that also received tax increment financing.

Clarity’s Tom McLeay says Auto Row contains some of the city’s most intact historic structures. After auto-related stores moved out decades ago, the Drummond and Firestone stood mostly vacant or used for storage until a printing operation set up shop. Neither Barnhart Press nor most neighbors had a business model that relied on foot traffic, and the area became one motorists passed through on their way out of downtown.

GreenSlate and Clarity developers hope incoming businesses help return the pedestrians. The shift already has started slowly with newcomers including Zen Coffee Company and the Grove Juicery & Wellness Cafe.

If all goes as developers hope, the mixed-use Farnam Hill Lofts would spark a bustle similar to that of the Blackstone District they helped revive about 10 blocks to the west.

Said McLeay: “And eventually, the Farnam corridor becomes a continuous retail and commercial strip.”

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