Our Sponsors

Search this Site
Hidden Stuff
« Friday News Digest | Main | New Rules for the New Frontier »

Let's End "Entertainment Districts"

I spent a weekend visiting a friend in the Old Market Warehouse District of downtown Omaha.


Believe it or not, Omaha has some good urbanism. There is a solid urban form, nice architecture and it’s all intertwined into a historic fabric. Minus the excessively large one-way streets, most urbanists would be very pleased to replicate this in their hometowns.


There is a problem with Omaha’s best urban neighborhood: it’s loud, drunk and single-use. Correction. That’s only on Friday and Saturday night. The problem with Omaha’s best urban neighborhood: it’s silent, empty and single-use.

While originally having many diverse purposes, the Old Market neighborhood now is mainly articulated around one function: entertainment (and the odd antique shop). This would be tolerable if Omaha had other similar neighborhoods. They don’t – and neither do most American cities. That is precisely why we can’t be surrendering our best places over exclusively to entertainment.

We should not be disconnecting our downtowns from all other aspects of life. And, while it’s tempting to pursue entertainment as a vehicle of downtown revitalization, it will only get you so far. Proposals for entertainment districts occasionally sprout up in City Council meetings as the next big thing. While it certainly is tempting in its efforts to capitalize on people’s passion for retail, sports, food and drink, it is a development prospect that should be viewed with skepticism.

You’ll find two types of entertainment districts: overnight and naturally-occurring [you can read more]. To its credit, Omaha has the better of the two – a naturally-occurring district composed of many different businesses, buildings, landlords and decision-makers. The area has the ingredients of other successful places, but it’s hard not to feel that something is missing.


It lacks one crucial element: people. Since entertainment is more or less modern code-speak for food and drink., it means that if it isn’t a weekend, these places are silent. For a place to be successful, it needs people. All types of people – not just 25 year old’s on a Friday or Saturday night out.

This policy needs to shift from making cities places to visit, and concentrate on making them places to live. Entertainment districts, even the best ones, can fail at creating a lively mix of retail, residential, commercial and civic space. Unless you’re a certain demographic, these are isolating locations, usually not worthy of the public affection beyond the handful of large sporting events, conventions or Friday night bar excursions. In fact, show me an existing or proposed entertainment district and I’ll show you a struggling city. Yet, we still continuously encourage entertainment as a revitalization tool.


Unfortunately, these types of environments don’t help in attracting other sorts into the urban settings. Baby boomers and families with young children aren’t going to be attracted to these places and want to be surrounded by the airport of late-night noise pollution. It’s hard not to feel that naturally-occurring entertainment districts are closely related to adult theme parks.

Paris and Florence don’t have entertainment districts. Neither does San Francisco. Melbourne doesn’t either. What these cities have are spaces for people. In the Midwest, we don’t have a lot of these great places or a long urban or architectural history, and the areas that we do have need to be done well (and expanded). That’s not to say that the activities that take place in the Old Market should be regulated or banned, but they should be more open to other activities. There is nothing inherently wrong with a district that encourages bars or arts, but it must be done right. Whatever the case, it cannot become a single-use monoculture.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (21)

Pure comedy at its finest! I don't have the time in my life to elaborately shred this blog, but maybe someone else will pick up where I leave off. Here is an interactive map of the Old Market for those who are not familiar with Omaha - http://www.oldmarket.com/interactiveflashmap.asp. According to the author, the Old Market is "single-use" and by quickly using the interactive map, one can determine for themself what is really happening. Next, let's pretend (as the author does) that only bars exist in the Old Market. If that were the case, and the free market determined this outcome, is the author suggesting that regulations be established to tell the free market what businesses can and can't work in an area? Third, maybe the author should do a little research on Jobber's Canyon, in fact, I will help him out: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=jobbers+canyon to see what could have happened - Would this be another ideal situation for the author? Is the population density not high enough? There is nothing substantive written here except for someone's opinion. I would also offer for the author to return for a farmers market or other event in the Old Market; come at a time when there is no snow (as your pictures indicate). Lastly, it's easy to critique - probably one of the easiest things to do. There are, of course, always better ways to do things - to improve, but where are the pragmatic solutions to help with change? At what point does STs begin to offer solutions for what they see as problems?

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

From my vacation hideaway.....great post, Nate. You remind me how our obsession with a single solution -- the silver bullet of an "entertainment district" or some other magic investment that will supposedly transform a community -- is so often our shortfall. I really liked some of the pockets of Omaha when I was there, but also struggled with the off-time desolation from the single-use mentality.

Ryan....dude, not sure what to say. I realize you want a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 kind of answer, but there just isn't one. In fact, what Nate is pointing out here is that, the pursuit of such a "solution" is really the problem. If you want a rational response, we need to stop imagining we have THE solution and instead focus, over a broad cross section of the community, on multiple efforts to make our places more productive. Go back and read our "From the Mayor's Office" series. This is not simple, orderly or something that can be done from a central planning office but something that is going to be a little more chaotic, complex and organic.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Mr. McClure, Nate Hood is offering a solution. He is pointing out that Old Market's current single use status results from regulation, or policy. His proposal is not to stop the free market from determining use there. He is proposing to allow a freer market than currently exists there. The interactive map shows single use: consumption.

Nate Hood is trying to highlight how cities will often become enamored with entertainment districts in an attempt to be proactive within our current situation. His solution is to allow more chaos, less rigidity. Basically, the solution Nate describes in his blog post is that we should be creating community, not a single use district.

Beyond that, he was not criticizing Omaha. He was using Omaha as an example. He chose to use Omaha because of the positive attributes there as well. Omaha provided him the opportunity to discuss more than one point. He was able to bring up naturally occurring and overnight entertainment districts, for example.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTrevor Henry

You guys have lost your mind. If anything, the Old Market is the antithesis to what it is you all are talking about. Complain about rampant sprawl that has plagued ALL American cities for 60 years and expose it for the ponzi scheme that it is, then turn around and start bashing something like the Old Market in the downtown core? Newsflash, the Old Market has weathered the storm and has done so "organically" according to the author. The core is what cities need to be revitalized and I am sure you will not argue with that point, lest you start fighting against your original premise (which would not surprise me for a second). Every picture Nate snapped above had car parked in the stall in cold weather. Did those cars appear there magically? Or did someone drive there? Does the weather affect the amount of people on the street? How much revenue has the Old Market brought in over the last 10, 20, 30 years (do you even know)? What is it that you are specifically after in your line of thinking and WHAT DATA do you have to back up your assertion?

I am not even willing to concede to your point for something like the Gas and Power District in KC (which is what I suspect you all are really on about). I was there (missed ya Chuck) for the Smart Growth Conference and guess what? Every time I walked to eat in their "DisneyLand" District, there was NOBODY on the streets. But guess what? Every restaurant I visited (lunch or dinner) was PACKED FULL OF PEOPLE. If it takes that kind of investment to point money towards the core, then so be it - it is a catalyst project. It takes money, to make money. Will it work, who knows? But are you all suggesting that to continue the ponzi scheme should be the default? Are you suggesting that the cost of these projects is out of hand? If so, how do you control the costs of the private market? I am all ears.

This is the problem with STs and why I stopped viewing the regurgitated vomit years ago. You complain about something (unsubstantiated) and then never point out solutions. I don't want a 1-2-3, but I do expect intelligent dialogue to make cities better. I suspect Nate made an honest mistake on his assessment of the Old Market and it was supposed to be aimed at other projects that cost loads of $. Even at that, investment in the urban core is not bad -- in fact it is what we need.

@trever - the answer to your chaos comment is in my first post. i'll leave that one up to you to figure out what happened.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

Trivia to start -- What year did planning begin in Omaha?

1101 Harney Street - year built - 1888

1109 Howard Street - year built - 1910

420 S 11th Street - year built - 1900

416 S 12st Street - year built - 1890

511 S 11 ST - year built - 1888

Make sure you examine the floor layout for each "single-use" building above too. Those were simply the first 5 I pulled up. I could keep going and going too.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

What is most sad is that we don't actually talk about "sprawl" here. I don't use the term and it is not my obsession. I talk about the Suburban Experiment, which is equal parts horizontal expansion and urban retrofit. With the latter you have the layered problems of single-use zoning, rescue remedies like Urban Renewal and TIF, an auto-obsessed public realm ultimately the replacement of highly productive places with places of much lower financial productivity.

The entire "entertainment district" concept fits precisely with this failed experiment. It doesn't matter what year the buildings were built, it matters what has been done with them and in the neighborhoods around them. As was pointed out on FB and on the ST Network today, every area where there is people should be an "entertainment district", or at least a district where one can go to a coffee shop, get a bite to eat and enjoy the trappings of urban life. Only in the Suburban Experiment do we take cities where this is happening along subsidized highway strips and then try to establish a competing, auto-oriented cluster in a target renewal area and call that great planning.

We've shown lots of numbers here on why this isn't working. Instead of being on a high horse defending inertia, someone needs to produce some numbers that shows that it is.

Again, this is not a "sprawl" versus "core" argument. If you want to understand what is going on here, you need to get beyond that simplistic construct. And, in the spirit of NNT, I would love to see every public official who says "it takes money to make money" actually take their own money -- perhaps their public retirement account for starters -- and put some real skin in the game to back up the silky rhetoric.

Orderly but dumb. I want chaotic but smart.

March 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Again, you dodge every question posed. You are a fake who does nothing but complain. I have provided evidence to the contrary of this joke of a post and you offer NOTHING in return. Per stnd usual, that is the WEAKTOWNS way - ALL TALK, NO SUBSTANCE.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

This post is so true. In my neighborhood of downtown Atlanta we've got a doozy of a failed entertainment zone: Underground Atlanta.

The city pumps (believe it or not) $8 million per year into this development, designated by the state go Georgia as an entertainment district with special privileges. Despite the investment and incentives, the spot is dead and empty most of the week, creating a sad and hulking dead zone in the middle of the city.

The land is connected by roads and transit so well to the rest of the city and nice mixed-used neighborhoods are growing nearby. But the historic heart of the city, with the most walkable street grid in Atlanta, suffers. Underground Atlanta needs to be completely revised as a mixed use development with residential, office, public and educational (GSU is nearby) uses. Trying to draw in people from all across the metro to an entertainment zone downtown was a mistake of the 1970s urban renewal efforts ans it needs to go away.

The Atlanta History Center posted a great, yet sad set of photos on their blog today. The top one shows this block of Peachtree Street in the 1890s when it was bustling with activity. The bottom one shows the current state of it, the entrance to Underground Atlanta. Dead as a doornail and surrounded by parking decks where there were once grand buildings.


March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDarin (ATL Urbanist)

Wow Ryan, at the risk of you ranting against me next, please take a moment to consider your tone. Clearly you have some connection to the Old Market, perhaps you have been involved in its current incarnation and this is touching a nerve, but the way you are communicating your grievances is petulant.

I'm a native Nebraskan, and am familiar with the Old Market. I too did not fully agree with the characterization of Nate's post, but I fully understand why he wrote it as such. If you would like to have a healthy discussion, rather than begin with "Pure comedy at its finest", try, "I understand why you would think so, but let me offer up some information you might not have had."

The fact is, no one wants to have a discussion with the first person, the one that yells and stamps his feet when his feelings are hurt (justified or not), and so you will win no one to your side that way. You lost the argument on tone before anyone heard what you were trying to say.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradam.

Thanks to everyone who commented. We all have personal connections to geography in our own unique ways. I know that I do. And, dealing with criticism of a place you love isn't always easy. That being said, I wanted to clarify a few things:

I used Omaha's Old Market as an example after visiting for a few days in late February / early March. I am by no means an expert on Omaha. But, I did felt like the Old Market was a nice place. I genuinely enjoyed it. In fact, I start the article by saying, and I quote, "Believe it or not, Omaha has some good urbanism. There is a solid urban form, nice architecture and it’s all intertwined into a historic fabric. Minus the excessively large one-way streets, most urbanists would be very pleased to replicate this in their hometowns."

Furthermore, I don't challenge the free market in any way shape or form. I wrote in the post, "That’s not to say that the activities that take place in the Old Market should be regulated or banned."

While I vehemently advocate against the "overnight" style of entertainment districts, Omaha has a naturally-occurring district (for the most part). That's good. As I eluded to in the article, it has all the right ingredients. The issue is that it is single-use in the sense it is a neighborhood based on "entertainment" - There are lofts. There are bars / clubs / food establishments. There are antique-ish art shops and places to get coffee. All this is good. But, I don't think the district lends itself to being an "everyday place".

Upon writing this, I spoke with my friend who lives in a loft in the Old Market District (on Harney Ave & 11th). I ran it all by him; and while he likes Omaha and where he's at, he didn't disagree with me that it's empty during the week. What we ultimately need are places that can accomodate people during more periods than events and weekends.

And, for you in Omaha, if you're looking for solutions, you may be in the wrong place. I can offer a few ideas on Old Market. Here they are:

- Work to attract a grocery store
- The streets a super-wide. Narrow them.
- Get ride of the one-way couplings, too.
- Work to tie in the Old Market District better with the neighborhoods to the North and South. Also, there are some other interesting business nodes in Omaha, including the Midtown area by UNO, if you could find a way to meaningfully connect those places (not by a STROAD), it could go a long way in helping the adjacent neighborhoods.

The urban fabric is good and it appears like progress is being made in Omaha. My last idea would be to try to not concentrate "entertainment" - code speak for food and drink - into one loud area. These are just quick ramblings. And, anyone from Omaha or anyone familiar, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks. _Nate

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Adam, here is my personal connection to the OM-zero, nada, nilch. I am a pure consumer when I choose to go there. The problem lies in the STs model of spreading nonsense without any substantial info to back it up. Chuck was here for 1.5 days a couple of years ago, Nate said he spent a weekend here. Now all of a sudden they are experts on the OM and what it should be? I will ask all of the "supporters" what are the solutions then? You want chaos and deregulated environments? Do you want areas of disinvestment to sprawl and follow the ruins of the suburban experiment infinitely? These utopian libertarian fantasies are not reality. They are completely void of any reality of the political environment. As if you can solve problems by talking about things in a vacuum.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

As another native Nebraskan who has been visiting the Old Market since the 80s, I have a soft spot for the area. Whenever I go back to visit, that's where we go (to eat and drink and wander, somewhat to Nate's point.) However, after college I also lived in a loft downtown and walked to work nearby. Although that was a number of years ago, I still think that living in the Old Market holds a lot of allure for young people and baby boomers--less so for young families, perhaps, due to a lack of amenities targeted at that demographic. There are quite a few art galleries and office buildings nearby, and lots of terrific apartments. The one thing that always strikes me as odd when visiting Omaha is the relatively giant width of the streets and preponderance of surface parking lots, which exacerbates the feeling of emptiness. Although there were not a lot of people around on the day Nate visited, I'd recommend going back June if possible to note the contrast.

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicolette

[Note: I wrote up a 10 paragraph response earlier which appears to have vanished. I'm going to try to summarize my thoughts quickly ...]

In my life, I have assigned strong emotions to geographies. I have loved places and hated places not because they are particularly bad or great, but because my experience there was a certain way. That’s fine, and I know a lot of people do that same. I think it’s part of human nature.

I like Omaha's Old Market. It's very nice, and I even say the post: "Omaha has some good urbanism. There is a solid urban form, nice architecture and it’s all intertwined into a historic fabric. Minus the excessively large one-way streets, most urbanists would be very pleased to replicate this in their hometowns." - I genuinely mean this. So many places would be lucky to have it.

Omaha’s Old Market will be fine. It’s got the right ingredients. But, labeling oneself as an entertainment district and concentrating efforts on entertain and entertainment alone doesn’t always lend itself to the best outcomes. By the way, when I say “single-use” I’m referring to ‘entertainment’. I didn’t mean to imply the that area was bad, but that it was turning into a place of just leisure. I think it needs people. People. All the time. The Old Market is about half way there.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Omaha, but sometimes a fresh set of eyes can be helpful. Did you ever have a term paper that you spent way too much time on? While proof-reading it, you start to miss the small intricacies almost as a result of being too familiar with whatever you’re working on? I feel that we can do that with towns and cities.

Also, I feel as if one commenter missed the boat on this article. It is not a judgment on the Old Market District, but on entertainment districts as a whole. If you’re looking for further reading, I recommend the following links:


and …


So, you’re looking for solutions. I don’t have any, but I’ll do a quick run-down on ideas I have for Omaha. Here we go …

-Get some major road diets downtown. The streets are very wide and they need to be narrowed
-Get rid of the one-way couplings, too.
-There are decent nodes somewhat nearby (Midtown, UNO area and Lil’ Mexico area) – find a way to meaningfully connect them – besides the use of a STROAD.
-Look to attract a grocery store to the Old Market area. Residents shouldn’t have to drive to Iowa to get a full-service grocery store
-Connect and integrate the Old Market with the areas directly north and south (it does do a good job connecting to downtown).

Thanks for all the comments. -Nate

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Ryan McClure is a planner for Omaha.


I suspect it was McClure that Chuck responded to a while back, although Chuck was too classy to call him out by name.


Omaha has the same syndrome that was identified in KC. With leadership like that displayed here, it is easy to see why.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJT

Says "JT" as he covers his identity to cower behind the Internet. Not to mention that JT is dead wrong in his assertion regarding the other post. I've asked Chuck for more information before and it is still the same story. Y'all can believe what you want to, the rhetoric never advances though. It's a great story, but that's all it will ever be.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan McClure

I get the premise of this article and think Allentown PA represents perhaps a good example.

Local blogger Michael Molivinsky posts a nice overview with links to a recent newspaper article about the "7th street transformation"


This is blocks away from our latest magic bullet a 220 million dollar taxpayer funded arena.

Classic organic growth (surgical application of taxpayer dollars) vs. all in magic bullet transformative project.

March 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRon Beitler


The description of Omaha does sound very similar to KC. I will add though, that our city planners tend to "get it" in terms of what everyone refers to as the Strong Towns approach, albeit while still working within a use-based framework. STROADS are still a way of life for the engineer (actively working on that one) and form-based zoning still seems to be a bitter pill to swallow for everyone. So it's a tough road (forgive the pun) ahead for us ST advocates.

The uproar here in KC everyone refers to was among the public, most of whom were far removed from the issues at hand.

I appreciate Nate's analysis of the entertainment district concept. His comments about our Power and Light District several months ago were very accurate.

Despite a lot of support from developers, planners and some neighborhoods, we have several other nodes in KC that are having a tough time transitioning from single-use entertainment into truly dense urban precisely because the general public's aversion to mixing uses and of course our steadfast support of use-based zoning. It's slow going, but even with our use-based codes some great projects are transforming the old, organic-style entertainment districts into legitimate urban form. There might even be hope for the Power and Light District!

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from KC - both mistakes and triumphs.

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric B.

Thanks for that, Eric. I agree with you and do have hope for KC. And I totally agree that the problems there seem to be less about the professional staff, per se (planners in particular) and more about the public perception. As frustrating as that may be, I actually think it is an easier problem to overcome as the public has a built in cost containment mechanism that will ultimately force a conversation with reality.

I'm rooting for you, truth be told. Omaha too, for that matter, despite the pockets of vitriol. The people in both places deserve a prosperous future.

March 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Hey Ryan McClure, just a heads up - Might not be the best idea to act like an unprofessional buffoon on the internet. Your bosses read this blog.

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJake

Chuck, you mention TIF in the same sentance with other failed one off notions. Can you elaborate or point me in the direction more information. Seems TIFs were embraced here a while back and there may be pressure for more. Want to understand this issue. Thanks,

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom Emerson
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.