A New Centennial Mall

by Charlyne Berens

When Nebraska celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017, it will also celebrate the total renovation of one of the state’s shining jewels: Nebraska’s Centennial Mall, which connects the State Capitol on the south to the Nebraska Historical Society and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus on the north.  

The new mall and its Spirit of Nebraska Pathway tells the state’s story and reflects the design of the Capitol building. “It’s a way to connect Nebraskans to their state,” said Susan Larson Rodenburg, a member of the committee that raised $9.6 million for the renovation.

Granite and bronze plaques along the 10-foot pathways at either side of the mall feature Nebraskans prominent to the state’s history. The Lincoln Parks Department’s JJ Yost said QR codes on each plaque take visitors to a website called Education on Location, where they can learn more about the Nebraskans featured on the mall. As technology advances, the QR codes will be replaced by the latest means of connecting to additional information.

Native Americans are prominent among the important Nebraskans highlighted on the mall, said Yost, planning and construction manager for the renovation. He said Native tribes and their contributions to the state are particularly recognized and honored at the north end of the mall where a circle of lights in the ground represents each of the 27 tribes that once lived in the area.

Water features enhance the mall in several places, and landscaping incorporates plants native to Nebraska and tolerant of its climate, Yost said.

Nebraska’s Centennial Mall, which runs from K Street to R Street, was built in honor of the state’s centennial in 1967. Beautiful at the time, it gradually became a victim of Nebraska’s weather. Pebbled sidewalks cracked. Trees outgrew their planters and died. Fountains stopped functioning and had to be filled in.

Preliminary investigations into renovating the mall began in the 1990s but were set aside because of the expense. By 2008, though, a design was developed that was beautiful and sustainable. “And the cost was something we could achieve,” Rodenburg said. “That’s when we really got serious.”

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler worked with city leaders and came up with $3 million to launch the effort. The Lincoln Parks Foundation became the fiscal sponsor and organized the fundraising campaign to reach the $9.6 million goal: $8.1 million for construction and $1.5 million for an endowment to maintain the mall into the future.

Rodenburg noted that fourth graders studying Nebraska history make up a big share of the 35,000 students who visit the Capitol and the mall each year. She and the others who led the campaign to renovate the mall wanted everyone in the state to feel connected to their state’s history through their connection to the mall. A bronze or granite plaque for each of the state’s 93 counties is one way that happens, she said.

The first phase of the project—refurbishing of the three blocks of the mall that are open to vehicular traffic—began in 2012, while the fundraising was still underway. “We were confident we’d reach our goal,” Yost said, but the renovation was a “pay as you go” project. So once the first phase was complete, the project was on hold until more funding was available.

For nearly a year, several blocks of the mall being used as staging areas were fenced off, home to construction equipment waiting for the next stage of renovation. The planners knew that the chain-link fences and the heavy equipment—and weeds growing up around them—were not exactly appealing to those passing by. “We were testing people’s patience at that point,” Yost said.

But then the second phase began, and people could see the improvements to the two blocks at the south end of the mall, near the Capitol—including a huge map of Nebraska that highlights its geographic regions, rivers and trails—and at the south end, where the circle of lights and the landscaping recognizes Nebraska’s Native tribes.

The 10-foot-wide walkways on either side of the mall connect the Capitol to the campus and are entirely accessible to those with disabilities, eliminating the steps featured in the original mall. Instead of the pools and fountains in the old design, the new design showcases water shooting up from the ground but draining away immediately to be filtered and recycled. Water features like that “are much safer and easier to maintain than pools,” Yost said.

Landscaping, which includes red oaks, concolor firs and drought-tolerant perennials and grasses—all purchased from a local nursery—began in fall 2015 and will be completed in spring 2016, Yost said. A preliminary dedication is scheduled for summer 2016, but the big celebration will come next year as part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration.

And, just as Nebraska’s iconic Capitol was paid for when it was completed in 1932, the Spirit of Nebraska Pathway and its landscaping have left no debt behind. The state and the county and tax increment financing paid for about half of the total, and private donors covered the rest.

The late Glenn Korff, a native Nebraskan and UNL graduate, gave the biggest single gift: $2 million. Agricultural leaders and organizations, civic organizations, the Winnett Trust and generous individuals came up with the rest.

Donors were enthusiastic that the total cost included the $1.5 million endowment for maintenance, Yost said. “That means we should never have to go through a big renovation like this again,” he added.

Instead, people from all over the state as well as visitors here will be able to learn about and enjoy Nebraska’s history as they walk the Spirit of Nebraska Pathways surrounded by literal and symbolic reminders of the best of Lincoln, Nebraska and the Great Plains.  


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