A move by the engineering firm Walker Partners to the former Pioneer Savings and Loan building is a vote of confidence in a resurgent downtown, President George E. “Jed” Walker says.
The marble-fronted building at 823 Washington Ave. has been empty since 1991, the low point of the savings-and-loan bust.
Last week Walker bought it from businessman Gordon Robinson, taking it off the dwindling list of vacant downtown buildings. Walker intends to renovate the building during the next year and move in about 30 surveyors and engineers, leaving room for a potential leased space for another professional firm.
Walker, who currently leases office space on Austin Avenue, said he never considered moving out of the central business district.
“We like being downtown,” Walker said. “Since we moved here in 2004, we’ve all seen downtown transform.
“It’s a fun place to work,” he said. “There are restaurants and activities going on. There are a lot of places to get a cup of coffee with a client and places to go after work.”
Walker has retained Keith Bailey of RBDR Architects to design the remodel, which could include enclosing a covered carport on the back of the building to maximize space.
But he said he doesn’t plan to make radical alterations to the look of the building, which was erected for Pioneer Savings and Loan’s headquarters in 1955. The building is notable for its black and white marble exterior, its corner atrium, large windows and original floors of terrazzo and travertine.
“It’s one of the few midcentury designs in downtown Waco,” Walker said.
Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, said she’s pleased to see Walker making an investment in downtown’s future and said it proves downtown’s increasing appeal.
“It think it’s wonderful and makes a lot of sense,” Henderson said. “I agree that building has some really cool architectural features that make it unusual in downtown, and I’m excited that (the owner) will be someone who appreciates that uniqueness and wants to play it up.”
Walker, a Waco native and Texas A&M graduate, left the Wallace Group in 2004 to start his own firm. He chose to lease from David Lacy at St. Charles Place at 600 Austin Ave., at a time when Austin Avenue was lined with empty buildings.
“When I moved down here I was a little leery,” Walker said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
But he said downtown’s vibrancy has grown along with his own business, and it has proven to be a good environment for clients and employees.
Senior project manager Nancy Nichols said she originally didn’t feel safe walking around downtown, but now she walks to visit clients or get a bite to eat.
“I think things have really changed,” Nichols said.
Walker Partners’ clients include the city of Waco, which has hired the firm for major road, airport and utility improvements now underway. The company also is working on major projects for McLennan County and the cities of McGregor, Robinson and Bellmead.
The firm, which has offices in Austin and Killeen, has about 350 active projects in the works in Central Texas, including work in Temple, Schertz, Seguin and Austin, where it is designing a major hike and bike system.
Strong office market
Bland Cromwell, commercial broker at Coldwell Banker Realtors, handled the sale of the Pioneer building. He said downtown has a strong office market, and tenants should be easy find both for the Pioneer building and for the space Walker leaves behind at St. Charles Place.
“Everything is getting absorbed,” Cromwell said. “The Pioneer building is a great fit for Jed, not only because of space and visibility but because it came with parking.”
The property has 46 parking spaces on-site, plus street parking.
The building once housed both Pioneer Savings and Loan and a law firm upstairs. Pioneer, founded in Waco in 1922, built it in 1955 during a postwar housing boom that meant flush times for savings and loan businesses. Southwest Savings bought the company in 1987, but the company failed in 1991 during the savings and loan crisis. Its assets were sold to a Kilgore company that closed the branches in downtown and on Valley Mills Drive.
Gordon Robinson said the building was a vacant “pigeon roost” when he bought it in 2008, along with most of the 800 block of Washington Avenue.
Robinson said he bought the building to be able to control the property adjacent to his other investment, which includes the Baylor School of Social Work building. He was reluctant to sell it until Walker came along.
“It seemed like the right time and the right use,” he said. “I think it will be a fantastic addition to downtown.”