Waco council endorses downtown renovation
By J.B. Smith Tribune-Herald staff writer
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
The Waco City Council looked to the future in a meeting Tuesday, as members endorsed a plan to redevelop the old town square and discussed three ongoing efforts to chart the community's course.
The council approved a “letter of intent” to provide land incentives to a Houston development group that wants to build $45 million in retail, office, residential and parking structures around Heritage Square.
The resolution, which passed 6-0, would give the developers an 80-year lease for $10 a year on 9.4 acres of land, including most of the two blocks in front of City Hall and a city-owned tract next to the Courtyard by Marriott. The blocks in front of City Hall, which were the hub of Waco in its early years, were damaged by the 1953 tornado and cleared in the late 1960s.
Councilman Randy Riggs said he was glad someone was finally proposing to redevelop the area. But he had several questions about how the project will be designed, saying he wanted to make sure it is not dominated by parking lots.
City Manager Larry Groth said the buildings will be “urban scale,” with buildings close to the street and parking tucked away inside the development.
“There may be a few surface parking spaces, but most will be structured,” he said.
He emphasized that the letter of intent is nonbinding, and the city will work out a development agreement and a ground lease that will give the city some control over the project's design.
An audience member, retired teacher Bill Franklin, said the council should shelve the proposal until it can answer bigger questions about the community's growth. He said he left Houston because it had become too congested.
“Do you want Waco to be a nice place to come to, or another Houston to escape?” he said. “A place where well-to-do retirees might bring their wealth, or a place which all but the poor abandon?”
The council pondered such questions earlier in the day at a work session with the McLennan County Commissioners Court.
The two bodies heard progress reports on the year-old “community visioning” process, the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce's economic development strategy and the updated plan for the Brazos River Corridor.
The Community Visioning Task Force has been listening to public input about the future of Greater Waco through a series of public meetings and surveys. Elizabeth Smith, head of the task force, said the process has brought people from various parts of McLennan County together.
“What people came to realize is that people throughout the community share common concerns,” she said. “People want good jobs. They don't want their kids to leave, and if they do leave, they want an opportunity to return to this community.”
She said people see Cameron Park and the river corridor as the “crown jewel” of the community, and see public transportation, the environment and metropolitan collaboration as important. She said her own vision for the next decade is for downtown to have 10,000 residents, with sidewalk cafes, art galleries, riverside restaurants and river taxis shuttling from a Bush presidential library to a national park at the Waco Mammoth Site.
“The future isn't hard to envision,” she said. “This future builds on what we already have.”
Downtown Waco Inc. Margaret Mills said she will present the updated Brazos River Corridor plan at a Jan. 25 meeting with the council, but she said its priorities include improving the perceptions of safety downtown and redeveloping Elm Street. Also, the plan suggests extending the river trail system upstream all the way to Lake Waco.
But the most discussion came from the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce's “Challenge Greater Waco” plan, a detailed strategy to ensure Waco's growth, snare better jobs and change perceptions of Waco from the inside and outside.
Commissioners and city leaders expressed excitement about the plan, but debated some of the specifics. County Commissioner Lester Gibson wanted a stronger commitment from the chamber to create an office for minority enterprise, while Councilwoman Alice Flores argued that such an office might detract from existing Hispanic and African-American chambers.
Councilman Riggs said the goal of “growing Waco” needs more discussion. He asked whether that meant “growing bigger” or “growing better.”
“We can grow too fast,” he said.
Chamber president Jim Vaughan said the council has the ability to keep growth from getting out of control.
“Let's think about having policies in place to keep that from happening,” he said. “I would like to have greater growth and better growth.”
Councilwoman Robin McDurham said she would like to see more emphasis on education in the strategy, but she heartily approves of the goal of reducing the poverty rate from 18 to 10 percent by 2010.
“We would have done more for our city than anyone could ask,” she said, in reference to the poverty reduction. “Our city could be what we want it to be.”
Vaughan said the 10 percent goal is aggressive and may be unattainable, but he said now is the time for Waco to “dream big.”
“If we could do that, people would beat a path to Waco's door,” he said.
They seem pretty confident that they have the library...