Downton Waco traffic navigating construction maze
The Findery has become hard to find. Though cater-cornered from Magnolia Market at the Silos, it has been partially hidden for about 11 months due to $20 million in street and other infrastructure work downtown.
“The last two or three weeks, the intersection of Webster Avenue and Eighth Street has been completely torn up,” manager and sales director Matt Koen said.
He estimates the furniture and housewares store has suffered a 33% decline in trade over the course of the work, Koen said last week.
“Look up Webster Avenue from some points and it looks like we’re closed,” he said. “I’ve made videos of how to walk to the store from various locations, posting them to Facebook and Instagram. Sales are pretty decent as long as people can get here and see what we have. It’ll be great when everything’s done. I don’t go hollering and screaming at the city.”
Nor does David Gorham, who owns Honky Tonk Kid BBQ at Mary Avenue at University Parks Drive. Gorham said he has contemplated a relocation, not because of a grudge against downtown or the street work “that keeps going on and on,” but as a means of creating more secluded parking and a larger patio.
“I’ve had customers message me on Instagram, had one yesterday, saying they’d like to visit me more often, but it’s so difficult to get here from the Baylor campus,” he said. “In general, people want to avoid downtown, want to take a different route. I mean, they reopened University Parks a year ago, and now (work crews) are literally in my backyard.”
Gorham said patio dining lacks charm when accompanied by the beeping of heavy machinery kicking up dust clouds.
Friday was just another day in the neighborhood. A motorist attempting to turn right from Clay Avenue onto South Eighth Street would encounter a cement truck moving in reverse. It had delivered its contents to Eighth Street and Webster Avenue, where crews were building a sidewalk. Getting to The Findery or to Magnolia Press coffee shop would have been difficult, if not impossible, for anyone traveling Eighth Street from Franklin Avenue.
Koen said he again has improvised to keep The Findery afloat.
“We’re trying to push website sales, and we do have free shipping on orders over $75,” Koen said. “Daily conversation we hear involves how getting here is so difficult, and how they can’t rely on navigational apps on their phone because nothing lines up when they try to navigate.”
Jim Reed, city of Waco streets division manager, knows frustrations are bubbling to the surface, he said. But he took the opportunity to applaud the Waco City Council’s “huge step” toward infrastructure upgrades. He said the city is spending on downtown projects $16 million of the $23 million allocated in fiscal year 2021 for street improvements citywide. Another $3.5 million will repair or replace water and sewer lines and storm drainage downtown.
That is only half the story, Reed said. That much or more is being spent on street and utility improvements for projects by Magnolia’s Chip and Joanna Gaines, groups announcing multimillion-dollar Brazos riverfront developments, and backers of the new five-story, 182-room AC Hotel by Marriott, all of which are receiving millions of dollars from the city through Tax Increment Financing grants.
Reed said downtown was given no priority in the pecking order due to its emergence as a tourist destination and force for economic development. He said the city has a pavement program “that drives selection,” relying on algorithms and data collected from work orders. He said, for example, James Avenue from Interstate 35 to South 12th Street at Baylor University will get fixed, probably in 2024. The stretch has become a drain on resources, crews responding to more than 100 work orders.
“It’s been cut up so many times for utility work and maintenance … we’d prefer not to have to get over there and work,” Reed said.
Street work and utility installations along University Parks Drive were initiated by Catalyst Urban Development, which is building for apartments, offices, retail shops and restaurants on city-owned riverfront. Construction is well underway near University Parks Drive and I-35.
The Catalyst project is part of $700 million in riverfront development planned between the interstate and Franklin Avenue, including a new Baylor basketball arena estimated to cost more than $200 million.
Webster Avenue from Sixth Street to 11th Street has been undergoing change so long, some may struggle to remember how the roadway once looked. Reed said the project represents a joint venture between Waco and Magnolia to include landscaping, infrastructure upgrades and street work.
“Magnolia took Sixth to Eighth, and we took Eighth to 11th, hoping to ensure it looks like one project, one continuous streetscape,” Reed said. “We’re in a really good place, in the neighborhood of four weeks out from having the paving work done, maybe sooner, and having traffic restored.”
Reed said Waco is using money from the Tax Increment Financing Zone to cover its share. Property taxes generated in a designated area limited to use in that area.
“We expect all construction around the Silos grounds to be complete prior to next month’s Spring at the Silos,” Magnolia spokesperson John Marsicano said by. “Foot traffic has, overall, remained steady and consistent with historical trends for this time of year, but at this time, there is no indication the construction has had any impact on daily foot traffic.”
Spring at the Silos is scheduled March 10-12.
Reed said the city strives to keep businesses informed of pending street work, “usually by mail-out, door hanger or both 72 hours ahead of time.”
Carla Pendergraft, who markets the Waco Convention Center, has a stake in downtown and its appeal to conventioneers and tourists.
“We do hear the occasional comment on the detours and construction downtown, but most of the time we can talk them through the best way to get where they want to go,” Pendergraft said. “We tell them that (Texas Department of Transportation) promises we will love it when they are done, and we believe that. Tourists also express that ‘it’s like this everywhere.’
“When I drive around downtown, which I do every day, I am really amazed at how well the project is progressing.”
TxDOT’s ongoing $341 million widening of Interstate 35 from the north end of Loop 340 to 12th Street served as a prelude to much of what is going on downtown.
“I have not seen I-35 worked on at this level in my lifetime, and I’m nearly 60 years old,” Reed said.
Waco commercial real estate specialist Gregg Glime, whose listings include downtown properties, said he does not see street work hampering sales.
“I do not think that’s affecting our efforts at marketing property,” Glime said. “It’s clearly a sign of growth and most prospects understand that. The city has done a great job given the circumstances to strategically work through the dynamics of each project and the overall pulse downtown remains excited.”
At the Dr Pepper Museum on South Fifth Street work has periodically hindered access, “but people are still finding us,” spokesperson Mary Beth Farrell said. Attendance in January increased about 300 from January last year, hovering around 7,000 people, Farrell said. For all of last year, attendance hit about 154,000, up considerably from the 100,000 in 2020.
She said the entrance off Fifth Street has been problematic the past couple months, so patrons have resorted to arriving via Mary Avenue.
“Even with construction, we’re looking to be at 200,000 this year,” Farrell said. “We have general information available online. We discuss planning your visit and list frequently asked questions. You can text us with problems, and we get back to you very quickly during business hours.”
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