Council Bluffs nonprofit transforms historic building into new apartments

The Cohen Building is the first in an effort to revitalize Council Bluffs’ downtown.
One of Council Bluffs' oldest buildings has been converted into a living space.
One of Council Bluffs' oldest buildings has been converted into a living space.
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 6:53 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It’s often described as a crown jewel by the community. It is one of the oldest buildings located in downtown Council Bluffs, the Cohen building.

It was built before the Civil War.

It’s been a longtime retail space for sports breweries, florists and clothiers -- but in the last decade, it’s fallen on hard times.

“Vastly underutilized, we purchased the building in 2018 with a vision to restore upper-floor housing in the downtown district.”

Sheryl Garst is the CEO of 712 Initiative, a non-profit that works to grow Council Bluffs’ economic vitality.

“What we are trying to do at 712 is economic vibrancy for our downtown district, and that is making every square inch its highest and best use,” Garst said.

When they purchased the Cohen building, it was completely scrapped and empty. A few years later, a $6.2 million project renovated 18 new apartments on the upper level and three retail spots on the main floor.

However, these renovations are dealing with an ongoing issue in the Metro.

“The Omaha-Council Bluffs area [is] thousands and thousands of housing units short,” Garst said.

A 2020 study showed Omaha and Council bluffs were 80,000 housing units short.

Garst found a way to combat this shortage by helping small businesses in the area attract more people.

John Nelson is the owner of Lincoln’s Pub. He said 712 helped his business by providing funding to expand his menu.

“It’s helped us with the development down here and getting more businesses and homeowners living in the area, and that just helps the community as a whole,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s menu expansion will soon turn his restaurant into a brunch spot, allowing a larger time window for people to come in. This is in contrast to the current menu he has, which is limited to lunch and dinner.

“We’re excited for the business as a whole,” Nelson said.

As for Garst, she said the next project on 712′s list is to renovate the Northwestern Bell Building next door to also be an apartment complex.