Downtown Waco: A little history…

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco. In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”  In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.” To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT) 

I may not be able to say that I am a Waco native, but I have lived in Waco since I was two years old. Downtown to me has always been just place with the ALICO and where my parents went if they needed to go to a city office.

Just recently I spent a little time paging through a book called, A Pictorial History of Waco.  The pictures in the “pictorial history” show a lively city with an animated downtown, full of energy.  When I compare those pictures to the downtown I grew up in, I’ll admit it evokes a little melancholy.  What happened?  Why did downtown Waco decline?

At the turn of the 20th century, Waco was one of the largest cities in Texas, and one of the fastest growing. “Cotton was king,” as the saying goes, and Waco was one the largest cotton markets in this country.

After the depression hit in 1929, the cotton market suffered in Waco. On top of that, the area experienced four years of the worst drought it had ever had.  Then, after World War I, manufacturers found they could import cheaper cotton from South America. The market for Waco cotton plummeted.  It wasn’t until a new military presence came into Waco after World War II that Waco truly pulled out of the depression.

Despite these setbacks, however, Waco maintained a vibrant, working downtown through the 1930’s and 40’s. Don Davis, a fifth-generation native Wacoan and executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation, recounted some of his memories of downtown Waco in the early 50s to me. Davis remembers going into shops, bakeries, and restaurants, going to his barber, and visiting his father’s office – all downtown.

“Growing up in Waco, I remember when downtown was very vibrant with lots of stores and lots of people,” Davis said. “Austin Ave was our main drag, and in junior high, we went up and down the street. It was exciting times.”

In 1953, a devastating tornado ripped through Waco. It was part of a 33-tornado outbreak that affected 10 different U.S. states. It struck Waco on May 11, 1953. Nearly 600 people were injured and 114 died; it is still considered the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.  The twister demolished hundreds of houses and structures, and wiped out a significant portion of downtown Waco.

In the 50s and early 60s, businesses began moving out of the downtown area into new shopping centers. The first mall was the Westview Shopping Center on Valley Mills Dr. The Lake Air Mall (which is now Target) was soon to follow. With major retailers like Sears leaving downtown, Waco’s city center became abandoned.

The city attempted several times to reverse the trend, but they all ultimately failed. For example, the city closed Austin Ave to cars to create a walking, outdoor mall with canopies and trees. People still wouldn’t come to downtown. Merchants complained because they were losing business without people driving along Austin Ave.  By the 70’s and 80’s the once bustling downtown Waco felt like a ghost town.

Then something good began to happen.  In the early 2000s development efforts started to gain some traction.  River Square Center, which currently has Spice Village, Trojan’s, Ninfa’s and other businesses and restaurants, came to life… people started moving downtown and building loft apartments.  These new downtown residents needed businesses and services. Most recently McLane Stadium and the Magnolia Market have lured thousands of visitors downtown.

Mr. Davis welcomes the new developments in downtown, and he pointed out one of the best parts of the revitalization is that many of the older buildings are being saved while blending in more contemporary developments.  This maintains the history and character of downtown.

Eric Ames, author of Images of America: Waco, also values the slow progress of the recent developments.  He believes a measured pace ensures that the new businesses are finding a needed market in downtown as well as maintaining the historic value of Waco.

“We do have a large amount of buildings and features downtown that have been around since the late 19th century,” Ames said. “You have to be careful about changing them too much. Once you take away the historic value, you can’t get it back. “

Ames went on to say that these buildings and features in Waco help tell the stories. If everything in downtown looked new, you would lose that connection to how downtown has evolved from the vibrant era to the tornado to the failed revitalization attempts and finally to the hopeful present.

I went to high school at A. J. Moore Academy (now Indian Spring Middle School), and unlike Mr. Davis’s stories of spending his high school days hanging out on Austin Avenue, I never ventured the few blocks into downtown. Since becoming a Baylor student, however, downtown has become more of a destination.

We are moving in the right direction.  The potential is there.  Our best days might not be the days pictured in “The Pictorial History of Downtown Waco, ” they might be the ones just ahead of us!


Rolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

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Downtown Waco: What’s it like living downtown?

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco. In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”  In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.” To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT)

Many people in Waco have begun to forgo suburban homes and apartments for a unique place in Waco we are beginning to rediscover.  They have found a place that offers historical value, a lively environment and an opportunity to be a part of a new trend in downtown living. What’s it like to be a part of that trend in Waco?

I spoke with four professionals in the Waco community.  They have not only found home in downtown, but also have committed their careers to take action in Waco for the benefit of the city and the great people in it.

Jorge Delgado

jorge-delgadoJorge Delgado grew up in south Texas and graduated from Baylor University in 2002. He is currently working with the Salvation Army to help people that are homeless, low-income families and veterans. He grew up in a county heavily populated with welfare dependent families, so he has a good understanding of how to connect with people who have fallen victim to circumstance.

After graduating from Baylor, Delgado lived in Lacy Lakeview outside of Waco for six years. Once new developments such as apartments and restaurants starting appearing in downtown, and with his job only a few blocks away, he decided to make the move. He has lived in Tinsley Place for almost three years now.

“When I graduated from Baylor, it [downtown]was still in its infancy stage,” Delgado said. “Now, when Baylor has homecoming, my former Baylor colleagues come into town, and they say, ‘This is not the same Baylor. This is not the same Waco.’”

Delgado attributes downtown’s growth to McLane Stadium and Magnolia Market. However, he fears this new need to maintain a positive image could affect nonprofits and the citizens that these nonprofits serve.

“My fear is that, with all of this growing and expanding, that the focus shifts away from trying to help lower income folks get the resources they need,” Delgado said. “For example, in downtown you have the Salvation Army, Caritas, My Brother’s Keeper, and Mission Waco,” Delgado said. “My biggest fear is that they try to push those organizations out …this is where all of those people know to come.”

Eric Martin

eric-martinEric Martin was raised in Michigan. His educational and professional career has allowed him to visit a wide range of places including Colorado for undergraduate school, San Diego for his PhD, and his first job as a researcher in the London. He moved to Waco when he was hired as an assistant professor in Baylor’s Great Texts Program.

Martin has been living in Waco for three years in an old fourplex building near Washington and 18th. With his work so close and his dedication to transit by bicycle, his daily routine revolves around downtown Waco.

“I commute between home and Baylor University along Austin Ave and 8th Street,” Martin said. “I frequent restaurants and cafes in East Waco on Elm, in North Waco near 15th Street, and of course in downtown. I love being near the Brazos River and Cameron Park.”

He noted two major issues with downtown that limit the ability for downtown Waco to truly become a livable and sustainable area—a grocery store and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

“It’s pretty crazy that we need to get on an interstate highway, or cross Valley Mills Dr. on a bicycle just to buy groceries,” Martin said. “If downtown is going to be a pleasant place to be rather than just a place to drive through, we need some investment in basics like sidewalks and bike lanes because car traffic speeds are pretty high along Franklin or Washington Avenues.”

Liz Ligawa

liz ligawa - 2Liz Ligawa lived in Waco and in the surrounding area before graduating from Baylor. She has her Master’s degree in divinity and social work. She currently works at Prosper Waco as the Director of community engagement.

A few months ago, Ligawa moved into an individual condo near the Waco Central Library on Austin Ave, across the street from the Prosper Waco office.

She said living in downtown, surrounded by business and commerce and a variety of people reminds her of the city experience she had in Atlanta. “It’s interesting to see different types of people from all walks of life with lots of interesting stories to tell,” she says.

Ligawa was never interested in a cookie cutter lifestyle. She was more drawn into a space with personality and variety. She fears that because downtown is growing so fast, it may all start to look too similar.

“Downtown needs to slow down to bring in diversity with a more intentional approach”, Ligawa says. “If you want to go far you have to go slow with more Wacoans insight. It needs a good mix,” she continued.

Unlike Eric Martin, Ligawa doesn’t see a great need for a grocery store in downtown just yet, because there are other places in Waco that need one before downtown. Instead, Waco resources should be put into creating a more walkable space, getting more residents and businesses in the area and creating a diverse space for people of all different age groups rather than one demographic.

Ligawa’s main priority for downtown would be creating more sitting areas in downtown. “There needs to be physical investments to encourage people to hang out with sitting areas that invite people to be together outdoors”, Ligawa says.

Cuevas Peacock

cuevas-peacockCuevas Peacock hails from Port Arthur, Texas.  His work with AmeriCorps and City Center Waco led him to downtown Waco where he currently lives in a loft in the Austin Arms building.

He is planning on moving out of the Austin Arms soon because of planned renovations, and he is considering the Waco High Lofts because he wants to stay in the downtown area.

Peacock originally moved into downtown because it is affordable in comparison to living in Austin. He enjoys the energy of the people and attractions in the urban environment, and he wanted to be a part of the movement that is pushing new developments in downtown.

Similar to Jorge Delgado and Eric Martin, Peacock said downtown needs a grocery store. More importantly, however, as each person mentioned before him, downtown needs more sidewalks to encourage people to walk around.

“Downtown needs more ‘placemaking’ items,” Peacock said. “For example, there is a street in downtown Dallas and when you look to the left, there is a big eyeball, just looking at you. Waco needs things like that to make walking in downtown Waco more interesting.”

Walking from Austin Arms to the downtown hub is empty and “a big ugly,” Peacock said. Waco needs ways to connect the various areas of downtown with “placemaking” items or initiatives.

Conclusion

I am graduating from Baylor this weekend, so I will soon be in a place where I can start searching for a place that will become my first home where I can cultivate my career and adulthood.

Through these conversations, I got a broader understanding of what it means to live in downtown. Downtown isn’t perfect yet, but that isn’t the point. Downtown is a great central environment with potential to become amazing in a few years. It only takes people like Jorge, Eric, Liz and Cuevas that are willing to make the first step.

When I asked what advice they would give to someone considering living in downtown, Cuevas said it best. “Do it.”


rolando-rodriguez-sotoRolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Waco 101: What the heck is TIF?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

(Have you ever been a part of a conversation where you just nodded and pretended you knew what was going on, when really you had no idea what people were talking about?  If you do this long enough, you eventually get to the point that it’s embarrassing to ask, and you just make peace with stumbling along in ignorance.  I know this from personal experience! For example, even though I think of myself as a fairly well informed citizen of Waco there are still some basic things about how the city works that I only vaguely understand. And – even though it probably only takes 5 minutes to Google it – I just never get around to it.

Assuming that I’m not the only one out there with this particular character flaw, Act Locally Waco is starting a blog series called “Waco 101.”  The idea will be to use a blog post every now and then to explain some aspect of how the city works – maybe some term or process you read about in the paper all the time, but don’t really understand.  It’s for those of us who want to be informed citizens, but are just too dang busy (or lazy!) to look stuff up.  Do you have ideas for topics for this series?  If so, send me an email at ashleyt@actlocalllywaco.org and we’ll try to find someone to write about it.  No one needs to know it was you who asked!  Thanks!  — ABT)

If you have ever read an article in the Trib about downtown Waco, you have probably come across the acronym “TIF,” as in…

Or, most recently…

…but, what the heck is “TIF?”

The acronym “TIF” stands for “Tax Increment Financing.”

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a way for the city to encourage development in an economically distressed area by investing tax revenues.  The basic idea is that there are certain areas in the city that would be beneficial to develop, but, to be frank, they are in such bad shape that it is difficult to entice investors to take the plunge.  To help with this dilemma, the City of Waco can encourage investment by agreeing to pay some of the cost of the development.  But, where would the money come from to do that you ask?  Enter TIF!

The basic concept of TIF is that a distressed property has a certain original value that generates some amount of tax dollars. After it is renovated, it will have a new, higher value that will generate more tax dollars. This difference in the amount of taxes paid is the “increment” in Tax Increment Financing.  The Tax Increment Financing model uses this projected increment to finance improvement projects.

Here’s how it works:

The city identifies a particular area that is economically distressed, but has potential for profitable development. This area is designated as a “TIF zone” for up to forty years.  For example, in 1982 the City of Waco established “Reinvestment Zone #1,” which includes part of downtown and a large part of the river front (map). That area is designated a TIF zone until 2022.

Taxes collected the year the TIF zone was established are considered the “baseline” taxes for the zone.   The Taxing entities (in our case, the City, McLennan County, McLennan Community College and WISD) agree that, for the length of the TIF agreement, they will take only that baseline amount each year.  Any taxes collected above that baseline will be put into a fund to be reinvested in the TIF zone.  This difference between the baseline taxes and the actual taxes collected is the “increment.”

TIF funds can be used for variety improvements: affordable housing, transit facilities, demolishing a building, or preserving the façade of a building, among others.  (Here’s the link to the city’s TIF Guidelines.)

Developers who are interested in investing in the TIF zone can ask for TIF funding to help with eligible parts of their projects.  This reduces the developer’s expenses and helps encourage renovation in the zone.   When the renovation is complete, the property is more valuable, which results in higher property taxes, which replenishes the TIF fund.

Developers who are interested in receiving this kind of funding start the process by checking with the City Manager’s office to see what parts, if any, of their projects are eligible for TIF funding. If some parts are eligible, the developer may submit an application for formal consideration of funding.

Eligible funding requests are presented to the Board of Directors for the TIF zone.  The Board of Directors is appointed by the taxing entities.  There are eight members on each TIF board in Waco: one each appointed by Waco ISD, McLennan County, and McLennan Community College and five appointed by the Waco City Council.   This board reviews the proposal and makes a recommendation to the City Council as to whether or not to accept the proposal.

If the City Council does accept the proposal, the city enters into a contract with the developer to reimburse the agreed upon TIF-eligible work.

This reimbursement might happen in any one of several ways, for example:

  • The developer might pay the cost of the approved improvement, and then be reimbursed over time from the increased tax revenues, or…
  • The city might pay for the improvement directly out of the existing TIF funds, or…
  • the improvement might be paid for by the sale of a bond, that would then be repaid over time out of the tax increments.

This model of funding has been used to help incentivize all kinds of downtown Waco development projects from the MLK Pedestrian/Bike Trail, to the American Football Coaches Association parking lot to – more famously –  parts of the McLane Stadium project and The Magnolia Silos project.   The most recent big TIF commitment is for the “Brazos Promenade” riverfront development scheduled to break ground in 2017.

Clearly this model of funding has had a huge impact on Waco especially in downtown.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds between now and 2022 when TIF zone #1 reverts back to the regular tax rolls!


Ashley Thornton French FryThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

Downtown Waco: What do the Millennials want?

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco.  In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”   In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.”  To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT) 

The goal for revitalizing Downtown Waco is to create an all-inclusive downtown area that encourages people of all ages to visit on a regular basis.  One particularly important demographic is the millennial generation, roughly defined as those who graduated from high school in the year 2000 or later.  This group includes college students and young professionals.

I met with several young professionals and college students who were raised in Waco to hear what they wanted from downtown.  I focused on native Wacoans to get the perspective of people who have been exposed to downtown before and after the recent growth in downtown development.

Unsurprisingly, different people want and need different things from downtown – different things motivate them to make the trip to Waco’s city center. Some prefer a quiet place to study, some want to relax during the day with family, while others prefer a fun environment that can last all night.

Creating a livable downtown will mean establishing a balanced environment that appeals to a variety of personalities and accommodates different schedules. For example, Anthony Albiter and Angeli Mondragon put a high priority on daytime activities they can enjoy with their families. Richard Fuentes and Leonor Campos, on the other hand, crave more nightlife with music and entertainment.

Anthony was raised in the north Waco area. He received his associate’s degree at McLennan Community College, and he is currently a bank teller. Even though he attended high school at A. J. Moore Academy (now Indian Spring Middle School), he did not necessarily experience most of downtown until recently.

“Downtown would benefit from having more hangout spots besides bars because some people don’t really enjoy bars,” Albiter said. “Or having a plaza so families can go enjoy a nice walk.”

Angeli was raised in the south Waco area near downtown. She now lives in the Sanger Heights neighborhood and has two children—one 2 year old and one 10 month old. She values the walkability of downtown because she has to travel with a toddler and a baby.

“I usually go to downtown for food or Spice Village,” Angeli says. “I’d probably go more often if there were more things for me do with the kids. I would love if there was a festival for toddlers or a place like My Little Play Palace in downtown to tire out the kids, so I can go shopping afterwards.”

Both Anthony and Angeli mentioned that having opportunities like the Waco Wonderland, Cameron Park and the food trucks are great, and there could still be more regular activities during the day for a family to enjoy.

In contrast, to Anthony and Angeli’s familial perspective, Richard and Leonor are more attracted to a downtown area with a dynamic nightlife.

richard-fuentes

Richard Fuentes

Richard grew up in the North Waco neighborhood, and he currently attends Baylor University. He particularly enjoys First Fridays when businesses stay open late during the first Friday of every month. Fuentes often goes with friends to grab a drink at a bar in downtown.

“I would like to see more shops and restaurants open for business, especially during the night,” Fuentes said. “An ideal downtown Waco would be a place where you can go during a night out and enjoy the whole night with lights illuminating downtown to give people the option to walk boundlessly almost like a mini city within Waco.”

Leonor was raised in Lacy Lakeview near Waco, and she currently lives near the downtown area. She values the historic and art aspects of downtown as well as the opportunity for live music and entertainment.

leonor-campos

Leonor Campos

“Downtown is slowly getting better with festivals and activities because each year they realize what didn’t work and what activities are getting more popular,” Campos said. “Before there were only club style bars, and now we are starting to have more live music.”

For Teresa Soto and Josh Arias it is not the businesses or restaurants offered during the day nor the bars or clubs open during the night that drew them from Hewitt to downtown — it was Pokémon Go.

“Before Pokemon Go, I wouldn’t go to downtown,” Teresa says.  “Pokemon Go brought me to downtown, which made me more comfortable going because before I didn’t see it as a safe place.”

Now after experiencing downtown, Teresa sees downtown as a nice place with food trucks, historic buildings, great restaurants, and people, so now she goes every other weekend. Her suggestion for improvement?  Make downtown more pet friendly with pet parks, and businesses and restaurants that allow pets.

For Josh, living in Hewitt means he really needs a reason to go into downtown. The food trucks and Cameron Park are great reasons to go, but downtown still needs something more to really encourage people.

“There should be more festivals and block parties with music for the community,” Josh says. “I would also love old school gaming arcades.”

yesenia

Yesenia Lares-Martinez

Yesenia Lares-Martinez lived in Waco during her four years of high school until she moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, but she returns to Waco regularly to visit friends. She offers an interesting perspective because she has been exposed to the downtown areas in both Austin and Waco.

“There is definitely more diversity and things to do in downtown Austin,” Lares-Martinez said. “I feel like in downtown Waco, it’s just one street that caters more to Baylor students and the middle and upper-middle class. There should be more clubs and bars catered to different identity groups.”

These Waco millennials seem most interested in developing a lively downtown area that has entertainment and activities throughout the day and night. Millennials and their wishes, however, are only part of the picture… what about high profile office buildings? Apartments and lofts? Easily accessible parking? Or stores that carry daily essentials such as groceries and supplies?

What is it that you want from Downtown Waco? Leave a comment below. I would love to hear what you have to say.


rolando-rodriguez-sotoRolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

Downtown Waco: The ABC’s of Living Downtown

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco.  In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”   In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.”  To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT)

This past weekend, I invited two of my good friends to a fun night in Waco. They had never truly experienced downtown! I can’t really judge them. I have lived in Waco for about 20 years, and for most of those years, I only knew downtown as the place with the courthouse and the Alico building. My appreciation for downtown has definitely grown since I started at Baylor. For those two friends and for all Wacoans who are willing to explore the hidden treasures of downtown, I have created an introductory course – The ABC’s of Downtown Waco:

alicoALICO Building (425 Austin)The ALICO Building is one of the first skyscrapers in Texas, and it remains the tallest building in Waco. I love driving on Franklin Avenue towards downtown and slowly starting to see the skyscraper peeking above the hill.

Balcones Distilling (225 S 11th ST) – Some of the best whiskey in the world is distilled in the old Texas Fireproof Storage Building right here in downtown Waco.  Balcones received double gold medals in three different categories at the 2016 New York World Wine and Spirits Competition.

Culture & Arts – Earlier this month, the Texas Commission on the Arts approved the city of Waco’s application for a cultural district designation. Each year Wacoans celebrate culture and art in the annual Cultural Arts Festival in the fall and Art on Elm Avenue in the spring. ( Waco Cultural Arts Festival – usually last weekend in SeptemberArt on Elm, April 7-8, 2017Creative Waco. )

Dr Pepper Museum (300 S 5th ST) – Waco is home to the oldest major manufacturer of soft drink concentrates and syrups in the United States. It’s always fun exposing fellow connoisseurs of the Dr Pepper brand from out of state to the museum.

elm-aveElm Avenue – When you visit Elm Avenue, the beautiful historic buildings remind you that it was once a thriving business district before a terrible flood in 1936 overwhelmed East Waco.  My favorite is to grab a coffee and breakfast pie at Lula Jane’s (406 Elm) and then take pictures with friends around the murals and historic buildings.

Farmers’ Market (400 S. University Parks Drive) Every Saturday morning, you can expect to find the Waco Farmers’ Market behind the old Fire Tower along the Brazos River. Strawberry and Nutella crepes by Co-Town Crepes are my preferred indulgence.

Graffiti, Murals and Art – Elm Avenue isn’t the only place with beautiful art. Some are in plain view in downtown while others will take a little more work to find. Here are a few to get you started: the Martin Luther King Jr. mural (near the Suspension Bridge), the Starry Night mural (corner of 10th St and Columbus Avenue) and the “You Look nice today Wacotown” mural (corner of Sixth St and Washington Avenue).

Hippodrome Theatre (724 Austin Ave) – The Hippodrome is not your typical movie theatre. It comes with a complete full service in-theatre dining and a restaurant and bar overlooking Austin Avenue.  They show first run movies, but the best experience is their special movie screenings of older movie favorites. Looking forward to “Rocky Horror Picture Show” coming up in a few weeks! (October 28)

Indian Spring Park (across from the Hilton on University Parks)As a kid, I remember when Indian Spring Park only had a few longhorns. Now there’s a herd! One thing is for certain, there are definitely more people at the park; I guess we have Pokémon Go to thank for that.

Jake’s Texas Tea House (613 Austin Ave) – In this 50’s themed restaurant, you can always find great banana pudding, and if you’re lucky Elvis and Marilyn Monroe will show up.

Kayaking and Water Activities – There are so many activities to enjoy in the Brazos River including kayaking, wake boarding, fishing or if you’re feeling fancy, you could charter a boat for a tour of the Brazos River.  (Bicycle World for canoe/kayak rentals, Waco River Charters)

waco-high-loftsLofts The historic lofts make the downtown living experience different than any other part of Waco. The historic Waco High campus, many factories and warehouses have all been transformed into beautiful high-end living spaces perfect for young professionals.  (Historic Lofts at Waco High – 815 Columbus Ave)

Magnolia Market (601 Webster Ave) – We can’t talk about downtown without mentioning Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame.  No trip to Waco is complete without an obligatory selfie at the Silos.

Nightlife – Downtown Waco has an amazing nightlife with a variety of bars to choose from that all offer a unique experience such as Halftime, Trojans and Crickets. Every first Friday of the month, businesses stay open later than usual for a fun experience with live music and great food. (First Fridays)

Old Buildings – Every building in downtown has a story to tell. The best way to discover the secrets and people behind the buildings is to download the Waco History app on your phone. It allows you to read feature stories on influential people and locations in Waco as well as pinpoint every location on a map so that you can truly experience Waco’s rich past.

Parades – Waco never misses an opportunity to close the streets of downtown for a fun parade. As a kid, my parents took me to downtown to see the Baylor homecoming parade. Little did I know, I would be attending Baylor years later. (Baylor Homecoming Parade – Saturday October 15)

Quack! Quack!: Cameron Park – When I think of Cameron Park, I associate it with quacks as the ducks huddle around the bank of the Brazos River. Throughout the park, you see bikers and joggers, families barbecuing, college students playing disc golf and children laughing as they splash away the hot weather in the spray pad.

River walk: Brazos River – On one side of the river you can enjoy the beauty of Cameron Park while the other side offers Bledsoe-Miller Park and Manny’s on the River as well as Buzzard Billy’s.

suspension-bridgeSuspension Bridge – At the edge of downtown, the historic Suspension Bridge connects both sides of town. While you’re on the bridge, bring some tortillas to take your chance at tossing them onto a concrete installment isolated in the Brazos River.

Texas Food Truck Showdown – Three-dozen food trucks invade Heritage Square in the spring to determine which truck truly serves the best food Texas. If you can’t wait until April for the next showdown, you can go down Franklin Avenue on the Brazos River to try out the row of food trucks. (Third Annual Showdown – April 1, 2017)

Upscale Restaurants ­- As much as we all love our food trucks, farmers markets and fast food, downtown is also a great place to find more upscale restaurants and venues for your special event such as the Phoenix Ballroom, DiamondBack’s or Klassy Glass Wine Bar.

Vendors: Restaurants & Stores – Where’s the middle ground between fast and fancy? While you are in downtown don’t forget to visit Dichotomy, Portofino’s and the shops of River Square Center.

Waco Wonderland – Each year in Heritage Square, there is a holiday parade, ice-skating rink, Ferris wheel, carousel and you can take pictures with Santa Claus. The tree lighting is something truly magnificent. (Waco Wonderland)

Xristo’s Café (Corner of Franklin Avenue and University Parks Dr.)Xristo’s is a one of a kind mobile café serving southern, Mediterranean and Turkish cuisine.

Youth – Downtown Waco is the perfect environment for any college student, recent graduate or young professional to live in after landing their first job.

Zoo (1701 N 4th ST)Lastly, while you’re in downtown, venture out a little further to reach Cameron Park Zoo. I only got to experience the zoo as a teenager and an adult, but it is still a fun time getting to see the animals and nature.


rolando-rodriguez-sotoRolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

Downtown Waco: The Elements of Downtown

By Rolando Rodriguez Soto

(This post is part of an on-going series about Downtown Waco.  In a sense, Downtown is “everybody’s neighborhood.”   In this series of blog posts we hope to contribute to the on-going conversation in Waco about what it takes to have a great downtown, and what we want for our own “Wacotown.”  To see all the posts in this series, click here: Downtown Waco. – ABT) 

When you hear the word “downtown,” what image pops into your head?  Is it a successful commercial district complete with subways and skyscrapers?  Is it a quaint collection of historic buildings and antique stores?  Is it a thriving strip of restaurants, trendy shops and live music venues?  Maybe the word “downtown” makes you think of concert halls, culture, and nice department stores? Or maybe the image in your mind is negative, one of boarded up buildings, graffiti, and crime.

More to the point for the purposes of this blog series, what image pops to mind when you think of Waco’s downtown? What do you like?  What would you like to see?  What would you like to see go away?  How do we even get our minds around what we want in a downtown when there are so many possibilities?

Maybe one way to think about it is to try to come up with a list of the typical elements that make up a downtown and to think about where Waco is and where we want to be in respect to those elements.   You may have your own list of elements in mind…here are a few of mine:

Residential 

Imagine waking up on a Monday morning and looking out your window to see storefronts, busy sidewalks and the ALICO building. After getting ready for the day, you go down a few flights of stairs, go next door to your favorite coffee shop to get your fix and then you walk a few more blocks to the office to start your work day.

Waco offers Some unique possibilities when it comes to downtown living. Luxurious lofts, historic buildings and apartments overlooking the Brazos river are just a few of the options.

The former Waco High School campus on Washington Ave. and the former Waco Independent School District alternative school campus were recently transformed into loft apartments that still retain the historic look. You can still find lockers and white boards in the Waco High Lofts building to remind residents of the building’s life in the 20th century.

The redefined downtown residential life is perfect for college students, young professionals, and empty-nesters who are eager  to take advantage of a new form of living, which will breathe life into downtown.

Commercial

Business is another crucial element of a thriving downtown. In previous years, many major department stores and restaurants began moving away from downtown to be near highways or in malls. This unfortunately left downtown with deteriorating and empty storefronts, which did not exactly make living in downtown desirable.

Recently, new businesses have begun to reassess the value of a downtown. Waco currently offers restaurants, coffee shops, office space, boutiques and antique shops in its downtown space.

As we continue to expand and add more commercial opportunities, Waco will be able to generate more employment and tax revenue prospects, which will attract new residents and creative thinkers.

Amenities 

So far, you have enjoyed your relaxing apartment, your walk to work and some fun shops and restaurants in between, but now after a long day in the office, you want to go out and do something fun. A strong downtown environment should be able to offer nightlife, culture, recreational activities and community events, so that there is a reason stay in the center city.

Events or activities such as a farmer’s market, art festival, concert, block party, weekly or monthly events or a special movie screening all contribute to a fun environment where residents can expect to find one central location that features work and play.

These types of events and activities are almost expected in downtown environment. Fortunately, Waco also offers unique amenities you most likely won’t find anywhere else such as the Magnolia Market at the Silos, the Waco Hippodrome Theatre, Balcones Distillery or the Art on Elm Festival.

In a commercial district where buildings and streets take charge, it is important to recognize and appreciate nature. Fortunately, any street in downtown can lead you to the beautiful Brazos River, Indian Spring Park featuring the Suspension Bridge, or Cameron Park with its hiking trails and Cameron Park Zoo.

Transportation 

We have defined the three major elements that reflect daily life—relaxation, work and play. Now how do we connect the dots?

A major benefit of a centralized downtown location is walkability. Not only do residents have the benefit of walking from home to work or other stores, restaurants or events, but also they benefit the environment by reducing their carbon footprint.

Exploring everything downtown has to offer is more enjoyable on foot because you are able to appreciate each store front and historical piece at a slower pace.

In its current state, downtown does not have the most traversable streets and sidewalks, but the city of Waco has improved over the years through the addition of bike lanes, larger sidewalks and shuttle services.

Streets in Waco may seem simple to someone who has lived here all of their life, but to anyone else, the streets can be confusing with their oddly timed traffic lights and one way streets.

Technology is beginning to help make navigating downtown easier.  We can access bus routes and directions with our navigation apps on our phones, and we can even call a car service with another app. But, creating a pedestrian friendly environment is crucial to establishing a welcoming downtown where a Wacoan can walk from their loft to work, their favorite coffee shop, the movie theatre or the park.

Have we fully realized the potential for downtown Waco? I hope not. I hope to see downtown continue to grow and thrive.  Who knows?  Maybe one day we will even have more than one skyscraper!


rolando-rodriguez-sotoRolando Rodriguez Soto was raised in Waco, TX, and he is currently attending Baylor University with plans to graduate in December 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing & Rhetoric. After graduation, he hopes to work in Waco in the nonprofit sector to help realize the full potential of Waco. His long term goals include hopefully creating and publishing creative work whether that is a novel, short story or even a television show.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these Aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.