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?Mas es Mas South Omaha!
More is More South Omaha

by Martin Shukert, David Dahlquist, and Patrick Dunn, RDG Planning & Design

The allegorical "Tree of Life," designed and built by RDG Dahlquist Art Studio with Iowa Metal Fabrication, is a 36-ft. tall sculptural gateway to the South Omaha community at L and South 24th streets. The LED-lighted feature comprises two massive steel plates painted with acrylic and Tnemec epoxy. The steel plates support three vertical light tubes that symbolize the area's growth. Ornamental medallions hanging from the limbs represent a variety of "tree of life" themes, including: apples (forbidden fruit); a peacock (symbol of longevity); leaves (nature); faces (balance of positive/negative and male/female); and pottery (vessels common to all cultures).

Ethnic pottery styles adorn the two-tiered circular benches. Custom ceramic tile is applied to a cast-in-place core. The "stem" encircles the pottery benches and continues as the unifying element. The foreground shows off five types of granite flagstone pavers (Cold Spring Granite) with a thermal finish and split sides.

South 24th Street in Omaha, Neb., a traditional main street business district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dates from the establishment of South Omaha as a company town by the Union Stockyards Company in the late nineteenth century. The district grew into Omaha's second largest "downtown" before beginning to decline with the decentralization of development in the mid-twentieth century.

The historic district has experienced a true renaissance, propelled by the growth of the city's Latino community. A flowering of new shops and restaurants has restored the street to one of Omaha's liveliest places. It's a center for new enterprise, providing residents with an array of goods and services, and all Omahans with a variety of sights, sounds and tastes.

Leaf-shaped designs on the circular pavement symbolize the Latino tradition of papel pecado (perforated paper). Terra cotta colored concrete (L.M. Scofield) pavement with custom glazed tile accents give a handcrafted flare to the streetscape.

RDG Planning & Design was retained in 2004 to develop a new public environment to support and expand this economic and entrepreneurial growth. The result has been a unique, urban environment that respects the history of the various ethnic groups that call South Omaha home. The project reflects the vibrant spirit of a largely Latino neighborhood, incorporating colors, art and symbols. On South 24th Street, more is definitely more.

The Concept
The South Omaha concept was designed to make visiting South 24th Street a memorable and evocative experience to a wide variety of residents and visitors. The landscape architects understood the deep attachments people of all ethnicities--eastern and central Europeans and African-Americans--have with the neighborhood and the opportunities it offered them.

The pattern-cut metal planter railings create a beautiful contrast and backdrop to the landscape plantings. Long-lasting perennials, like the 'Lady's Mantle' shown here, along with seasonal annuals, enhance the dynamic colors and textures of the hardscape.

The "tree of life" concept is the overriding theme common to all of these cultures. Many elements of the streetscape, including folk art, were derived from a community survey and market analysis, also developed by RDG. The survey indicated the importance of a quality public realm that would appeal to a customer base broader than the immediately adjacent neighborhood. This was considered key to expanding the market reach of area entrepreneurs.

While the art and color of the street was important to the neighborhood development effort, functionality was also a key concern. South 24th Street was converted from a four-lane artery with parallel parking and traffic signals at each intersection to a two-lane roadway with diagonal parking. Signals, which tempt some drivers to "beat red lights," were replaced by four-way stops at each intersection. The result has been a 40 percent increase in on-street parking and a much more pedestrian-friendly environment. Traffic hasn't declined, but moves in an almost processional manner, becoming part of the urban scene. People in a hurry are routed to an adjacent, more free-flowing neighborhood street and the parallel freeway.

The Holophane streetlights ('Teardrop' series) harken back to the traditional lighting standards of South Omaha. The composition of the pottery bench, the leaf planter and seed pods (white and blue precast-concrete seats with a high-performance coating) lend to the lively and festive atmosphere. Shade trees like the 'Homestead' elm are used in the large leaf planters located at the intersections.

The change in street section did create some technical challenges, including a minor but significant widening of the street that required storm drainage reconstruction and modification of subbasements, a frequent problem in older urban settings.

Streetscape Components
The project included a suite of features and materials, united around the broad themes and folk art symbols of the Tree of Life. While many of the materials, including tiles, paper-cut forms, and metal work, reflect elements of a Latino townscape, the symbols are universal to the ethnic groups whose members moved here for jobs in the meatpacking industries and made homes in the district. Elements include:

The custom-glazed screen-printed mosaic tiles were made by RDG Dahlquist Art Studio.

The Tree of Life Gateway Features
At the entrance to the business district at 24th and L, a special Tree of Life gateway feature reflects the many nationalities and cultures that built South Omaha. The Tree of Life is an integrated piece of public art that functions on many levels. It's a destination icon that brands the district. As a monumental gateway feature, it welcomes people in character, color and texture and it begins the cross-cultural connection that ties all of the symbols and imagery of the South Omaha community together. The tree is 36-feet tall and made of two massive steel plates.

The plates support three vertical light tubes, which symbolize the area's growth. The ornamental medallions in the Tree of Life represent a variety of related themes. All of the various themes or variations of them are cross-cultural and found in the four ethnicities - Czech, Polish, Croat, and Mexican. The four main ethnicities share many common denominators: the Roman Catholic faith, decorative tile crafts, cut-paper, lace, clothing/tapestries, woodwork and metalwork. Each culture has traditions of making beautiful things by hand and sharing them as gifts and in celebration.

The "stem" of the Tree of Life is a streetscape of five colors of granite flagstone (Cold Springs Granite) and 6" x 6" 'Plaza Stone Wembly Green' pavers (Pavestone) form the "stem" of the Tree of Life motif, offering a dynamic contrast to the traditional gray concrete. "Seed pods" are placed like clusters of fruit on a vine.

There are several images that repeat on the Tree of Life in different sizes, based on shared symbols and expressed historically by the cultures:

  • Birds (the Peacock, in particular): symbolic of longevity, time and infinity.
  • Apples: depicted in all "trees of life," symbolic of the forbidden fruit, Garden of Eden and temptation.
  • Leaves: representative of the natural world and integral to many trees. A cultural motif in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Croatia, Mexico and many other countries.
  • Faces: symbolic of the balance of positive/negative and male/female.
  • Pottery: utilitarian and ritualistic vessels common to all cultures. Simple Hispanic-Moorish forms influence the shapes.

Expressing the "Tree of Life" in the Streetscape
The Stem: The stem of the Tree of Life is expressed in the streetscape by a continuous winding band of green concrete pavers to unify the ground plane. This stem is the framework from which the features of the streetscape "grow."

Leaf Planters: Cast-in-place concrete planters of various sizes and orientations appear along the stem. Color and texture explode from these planters in the form of detailed vertical ceramic patterns and seasonally changing perennial and annual planting beds. The mosaic tile work that wraps the light columns, benches and retaining walls pays homage to the history of tile craftsmanship around the world, particularly that of Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

Pottery Benches: Ethnic pottery styles adorn the two-tiered circular benches. Custom-made ceramic tile is applied to a cast-in-place core. At the center of each bench extending vertically to 12 feet are cut-metal lined light columns.

Seed Seats: Groupings of vividly colored circular precast seats.

Paving: In addition to the stem paving, there are three other primary hardscapes. The most dominant is remnant granite throughout the midblock areas. The granite reflects the paving materials used in traditional Mexican plazas. Color-conditioned tooled paving is used at the intersection corner nodes, and circular and leaf-shaped paving symbolize the Latino traditions of paper-cut artistry.

Street Lighting: The new street lighting for 24th Street recalls the traditional lighting standards that once graced South Omaha, and can still be found in some places: teardrop-shaped pendant lights and ornamental brackets.

The Town Square: The town square has special importance in Mexican communities. The planners have emphasized the importance of such a space for South Omaha--the Plaza de la Raza at the center of the district. The plaza, not yet realized, will build on the concept of a town square, with a bandstand, performance area, jets of water that will provide light and activity, and a plaza of flags celebrating the major cultures of this area.

A collection of mosaic tile images on the street represent the area's four ethnicities (Czech, Polish, Croat, and Mexican). All tile work and patterns were custom glazed into 12" x 12" mosaics by RDG Dahlquist Art Studio.

Project Phases
While substantial private funding was committed, the bulk of the project was financed with Community Development Block Grant funds, allocated incrementally over a number of years. The initial phase set the new curb lines to increase parking and establish the street function. For many business owners, that advantage compensated for the gradual construction pace. Flatwork was completed on a block-by-block basis, with enhancements and artwork following. The result has been an active project that has not obstructed businesses or inconvenienced people.

South 24th Street demonstrates a streetscape project can reflect community history and common themes and create a place of delight, while expanding the market reach of a lively neighborhood business district.

South 24th Street - Omaha, Neb. Team
Artist: David Dahlquist, RDG Dahlquist Art Studio, Des Moines
Civil Engineer: Ehrhart Griffin and Associates, Omaha
Community Liaison: Robert Peters Consulting
Electrical Engineer: RDG Planning & Design, Des Moines
Irrigation Consultant: E C Design Group, West Des Moines
Landscape Architects: Patrick Dunn, ASLA; Dolores Silkworth, ASLA; Jonathan Martin, ASLA; Cary Thomsen, ASLA; Hans Klein-Hewett, ASLA; RDG Planning & Design, Omaha and Des Moines
Owner: City of Omaha
Planner: Marty Shukert, FAICP, RDG Planning & Design, Omaha
Structural Engineer: Charles Saul Engineering, Des Moines
Sculpture: 'Tree of Life' sculpture, light tubes: RDG Dahlquist Art Studio
Tile Work (pavement, walls): RDG Dahlquist Art Studio

Cold Spring Granite Co.
Holophane: Streetlights
L.M. Scofield: Integrally Colored Concrete
Pavestone: 'Plaza Stone' square pavers, 'Wembly Green'
Toro: Irrigation

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August 22, 2019, 8:25 pm PDT

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