Remaking a 1970’s Downtown Park Into a New Public Realm

Honor Award

General Design

Omaha, Nebraska, United States
OJB Landscape Architecture
Client: The Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority

Although a large-scale project, it links appropriately to the surrounding open spaces and community edges while gracefully dividing the land into unique and meaningful places. The grand gestures are well-scaled, highly social, and memorable.

- 2023 Awards Jury

Project Credits

Design Lead, Master Plan, Landscape Architecture: OJB Landscape Architecture

HDR, Civil, Environmental, Architectural, Structural, Public Involvement, Transportation, Permitting, Bridge

Kiewit, Construction Management

Gensler, Architecture

Atelier Ten, Lighting Design

MR Global, Specialty Lighting

Fluidity, Water Feature Design

RSM Design, Environmental Graphic Design

Studio Ludo, Play Consultant

Alvine Engineering, Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing Engineering

Pine and Swallow, Soil Science

ADBC Architecture & Engineering, Site Structures

Terracon, Geotechnical Engineering and Special Inspections

RES (formerly Applied Ecological Services), Restoration Ecologist

Walker Consultants, Parking Consultant

Water Scape, Irrigation

Lamp Rynearson Associates, Survey and Platting

Marx | Okubo, ADA Consultant

OJB Landscape Architecture, Landscape Architecture

Project Statement

Gene Leahy Mall is the first of three parks to reopen in a 72-acre Riverfront Revitalization Project in downtown Omaha. The park program, validated through a rigorous public process, transforms an existing inaccessible space into a reimagined regional destination. The downtown core is activated into a public realm that will connect to the Missouri River for the first time in decades. A nonprofit maintains and operates the park with events that encourage social and physical health and wellness. Diverse, active programming is paired with places for reflection and connection to nature, underscoring Omaha’s commitment to community vibrancy.

Project Narrative

The 14.5-acre Gene Leahy Mall was constructed in 1977 in a wave of urban revitalization that brought green space, people, business, and commerce to the city core. As downtown grew, the steep edges of the original sunken park with a meandering lagoon at its center presented challenges of access, activation, and numerous internal circulation issues.

In a total rethinking of access, the western half of the site is raised to street level to welcome pedestrians at all points, and the interior is replanned with a series of outdoor rooms that support changing civic needs. The heart of the park is the new event lawn and performance pavilion that supports self-produced as well as professional concerts and performances. A sculpture garden houses rotating artists and a permanent sculpture inspired by Omaha culture anchors the west end of the park. A grouping of trellises to the southwest provides gathering spaces for large groups that gather to enjoy food trucks parked nearby. Striking custom play structures inside the Arches Playground are a magnet for children, with additional thoughtful amenities for parents and caregivers.

The historic US National Bank Arches are replanned as the anchor to a new plaza and pedestrian promenade with an overhead lighting canopy and a custom swing structure. The Downtown Slides, an icon of the original park, are given new life. A new water feature marks the grade transition from the west and directs to a new pond that includes aquatic plants, ample seating along the perimeter and a new boat cove and amphitheater.

A smaller event lawn and trellis anchor the eastern end of the park, providing an additional venue for intimate events. Dog parks along the northern edge take advantage of grading challenges to provide an exciting, sculptural landscape; the edge along the park includes opportunities for people without pets to enjoy the activity.
The significant grade change along the park’s length was a key design challenge for accessibility. Input from community access advocates led to the design of numerous routes to each amenity, opportunities for companion seating, and a playground with transfer systems, low-impact features and a variety of size and enclosure spaces.

Excavates stone and materials are repurposed throughout the site. The park heavily features native prairie plants. Significant soil improvements enhance the sites’ ability to sequester carbon and reduce runoff. The park trees include a wide range of native and adapted species that diversify the city’s urban forest canopy and mitigate heat island effect.

The new Gene Leahy Mall has already transformed downtown Omaha, connecting the entertainment and cultural destinations with new businesses, residential and office development, and signaling the importance of open space for the quality of life. The final phase of the Riverfront Revitalization will open in the summer of 2023. Heartland of America Park will connect to the east end of Gene Leahy Mall, and Lewis and Clark Landing, a remediated brownfield site, will create a new destination along the Missouri River. As the gateway to Downtown and the Old Market, the renovation of Gene Leahy Mall is an essential step in the transformation of Omaha’s riverfront.


  • Furniture
    • Site Pieces Custom Benches
    • Site Pieces Monoline Benches, Community Table, Bike Racks, Waste Receptacles and Adirondak Chair
    • Custom Precast Bench foundations/basin by QCP Corp
    • ‘Bol’ fire pit by Paloform
  • Drainage/Erosion
    • Network of perforated drain pipes by NDS Pro
    • French drains / drainage pipes in decorative aggregate
    • Drainage Swales
  • Fences/Gates/Walls
    • Wireworks Plus Fence by Ameristar
  • Irrigation
    • Rainbird equipment
    • Netafim tubing and connectors
    • NDS boxes
  • Lumber/Decking/Edging
    • Thermally Modified Ash by Thermory USA for wood decking and furniture
  • Parks/Recreation Equipment
    • Landscape Structures Roller Slide
    • Landscape Structures Stainless Steel Slides
    • Landscape Structures Swings
  • Structures
    • Custom Trellis Structures- Design by ADBC Architecture; Fabricated by Drake Williams Steel, Inc.
  • Water Management/Amenities
    • Membrane/Reflecting Splash Pad – Crystal Fountains
    • Cascades Water Feature - Crystal Fountains
  • Soils
    • The Soils were all custom blended/engineered by Pine and Swallow – soil types include biorention, shrub, tree, lawn, and sand-based structural soil types.
  • Hardscape
    • Topcast concrete paving and site walls; local aggregate mix design.
    • Stacked Limestone Block Retaining WallsDetectable warning pavers by Neenah Foundry – iron plates.
    • SynLawn Artificial Turf Surfacing
    • Black Granite Paving from Babbitt, MN - Coldspring, Cottonwood Limestone from Kansas – US Stone Industries
  • Lighting
    • BK Lighting
    • Wagner Lighting
    • FC Lighting
    • Apogee Lighting
    • Acclaim Lighting, BEGA, Amerlux, Vista, Lumenpulse, Foscarini, HK Lighting, Valmont Custom Fixture(s)
  • Other
    • Custom, Signage by Local Manufacturer – Omaha Neon

Plant List

  • Trees:
  • Amelanchier X Grandiflora `Autumn Brilliance` / Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry
  • Acer X Freemanii `Dtr 102` / Autumn Fantasy Maple
  • Acer X Freemanii `Jeffersred` / Autumn Blaze Freeman Maple
  • Acer X Freemanii `Bailston` / Matador Maple
  • Acer X Freemanii `Marmo` / Marmo Freeman Maple
  • Betula Nigra `Cully` / Heritage Birch
  • Crataegus Phaenopyrum / Washington Hawthorn
  • Gleditsia Triacanthos F. Inermis `Draves` / Street Keeper Honeylocust
  • Gleditsia Triacanthos F. Inermis `Skycole` / Skyline Honeylocust
  • Platanus X Acerifolia `Morton Circle` / Exclamation! London Plane Tree
  • Quercus Bicolor / Swamp White Oak
  • Quercus X Macdanielii `Clemons` / Heritage Oak
  • Quercus Macrocarpa / Bur Oak
  • Ulmus `Morton` / Accolade Elm
  • Ulmus X `Morton Glossy` Tm / Triumph Elm
  • Shrubs:
  • Amorpha Fruticosa / False Indigo
  • Ceanothus Americanus / New Jersey Tea
  • Cephalanthus Occidentalis / Buttonbush
  • Clethra Alnifolia `Sixteen Candles` / Sixteen Candles Summersweet Clethra
  • Cornus Amomum / Silky Dogwood
  • Cornus Sericea `Flaviramea` / Yellow Twig Dogwood
  • Cornus Sanguinea `Midwinter Fire` / Midwinter Fire Dogwood
  • Cornus Sericea / Red-Twig Dogwood
  • Hydrangea Quercifolia `Pee Wee` / Pee Wee Oakleaf Hydrangea
  • Physocarpus Opulifolius / Ninebark
  • Rosa Arkansana / Dwarf Prairie Rose
  • Rosa Blanda / Smooth Rose
  • Salix Purpurea `Nana` / Dwarf Arctic Willow
  • Symphoricarpos Albus / Snowberry
  • Symphoricarpos Orbiculatus / Coralberry
  • Thuja Occidentalis `Smaragd` / Emerald Green Arborvitae
  • Viburnum Opulus Var. Americanum / American Cranberrybush
  • Perennials:
  • Agastache X `Black Adder` / Black Adder Anise Hyssop
  • Amsonia Hubrichtii / Arkansas Blue-Star
  • Anemone Sylvestris / Snowdrop Anemone
  • Allium Schoenoprasum / Common Chives
  • Asclepias Incarnata / Swamp Milkweed
  • Bergenia Cordifolia / Heartleaf Bergenia
  • Echinacea Purpurea / Coneflower
  • Echinops Ritro `Veitch`s Blue` / Blue Globe Thistle
  • Eryngium Yuccifolium / Rattlesnake Master
  • Eryngium Zabelii `Big Blue` / Big Blue Sea Holly
  • Eupatorium Maculatum `Gateway` / Gateway Joe-Pye Weed
  • Eupatorium Dubium `Little Joe` / Little Joe Joe-Pye Weed
  • Eupatorium Perfoliatum / Common Boneset
  • Echinacea Purpurea `White Swan` / White Swan Coneflower
  • Heuchera Villosa `Autumn Bride` / Autumn Bride Coral Bells
  • Helianthus Helianthoides / Ox-Eye Sunflower
  • Iris Sibirica `Caesar`s Brother` / Caesar’s Brother Siberian Iris
  • Iris Virginica Shrevei / Shreve`S Iris
  • Nepeta X Faassenii `Walkers Low` / Walkers Low Catmint
  • Oligoneuron Rigidum / Stiff Goldenrod
  • Pycnanthemum Virginianum / Mountain Mint
  • Rudbeckia Hirta / Black-Eyed Susan
  • Salvia X Sylvestris `Mainacht` / May Night Wood Sage
  • Salvia Pratensis `Pink Delight` / Pink Delight Meadow Sage
  • Sparganium Eurycarpum / Giant Bur-Reed
  • Stachys Officinalis `Hummelo` / Hummelo Stachys
  • Verbena Hastata / Blue Vervain
  • Veronica Incana `Pure Silver` / Pure Silver Spiked Speedwell
  • Vines:
  • Parthenocissus Quinquefolia / Virgina Creeper
  • Grasses:
  • Andropogon Gerardii / Big Bluestem
  • Bouteloua Curtipendula / Side Oats Grama
  • Calamagrostis X Acutiflora `Karl Foerster` / Feather Reed Grass
  • Carex Lacustris / Common Lake Sedge
  • Carex Rosea / Rosy Sedge
  • Festuca Glauca `Elijah Blue` / Elijah Blue Fescue
  • Glyceria Striata / Fowl Manna Grass
  • Schizachyrium Scoparium / Little Bluestem Grass
  • Schoenoplectus Tabernaemontani / Softstem Bulrush
  • Sporobolus Heterolepis / Prairie Dropseed
  • Spartina Pectinata / Prairie Cordgrass
  • Turf:
  • Festuca Arundiancea "Turf Saver RTF"