The shops and restaurants clustered around Second Street and Franklin Avenue are a full half-mile from the retail phenomenon known as Magnolia Market at the Silos. But they’re feeling the parking pinch the Silos have brought to downtown.
In a case of the solution becoming a problem, the free Silo District Trolley loop that the city started last summer to ease parking congestion has encouraged Silo shoppers to park at the already crowded public lots in front of River Square Center and Stone’s Throw.
Now the downtown Public Improvement District and City Center Waco are asking the city to take several steps to steer those customers to other lots.
“We at City Center Waco and the PID are concerned that this is a serious problem,” City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson said. “The unavailability of parking for customers of the river district is contributing to a decline in business for those establishments.”
The PID board, which oversees a fund for special downtown services, met Monday and recommended some short- and midterm solutions to the parking crunch.
They start with removing references to the public parking lot from tourist promotional materials and with removing signs advertising Second and Franklin as a trolley stop. Next, the “public parking” signs at the lots would be replaced with new signs advertising public parking only after 5 p.m. and on weekends, though the lots would remain open to the public without restriction.
In addition, the PID board asked the city to encourage users of the Waco Convention Center to park across Third Street from City Hall and to make the underused city parking garage at Fourth Street more welcoming to visitors. In the midterm, the PID board is also asking the city to consider creating an alternative public parking lot somewhere else along the trolley loop.
Assistant City Manager Deidre Emerson said city staff has already scrubbed mention of the River Square trolley stop from its online publications and will bring the other recommendations to the July 18 council meeting for discussion.
For those who have circled the block looking for a space around RiverSquare or the Magnolia …
Henderson’s nonprofit group provides staffing for the PID and helped conduct a recent parking study for downtown that the PID commissioned. The study, conducted last year, found the lots between Third Street and University Parks Drive were the most used in downtown, often reaching full capacity. The average car was observed to stay an hour and 45 minutes.
But the dynamics have changed since those observations were made last August and September. The trolley route, which debuted in July 2016, grew in popularity over the ensuing months, with most Silo visitors using free parking near the Waco Downtown Farmers Market site around University Parks and Webster Avenue.
But since early 2017, that free parking area has closed because of a site cleanup for future development, and tourists have migrated to River Square to park, according to Henderson and the merchants.
“When the trolley started, it was great,” said Jennifer Wilson, owner of the Spice Village retail emporium at River Square. “We were super excited about the possibilities and the amount of people it was going to bring to us. . . . But what we discovered is that because the city had this listed as one of the parking places to get on the trolley, cars would literally stay here all day. It’s hurting people who are coming directly to River Square.”
Wilson said her business is getting plenty of tourist traffic, but she worries that it’s at the expense of local customers.
“Our Waco customers are not coming to us anymore because they’re so frustrated with parking being such an issue,” she said. “I think all the businesses down here have seen the abandonment from some of our locals because they don’t want to have to deal with the parking.”
Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant also has seen the mixed blessing of Waco’s Magnolia boom, general manager Darlene Johnson said. She said the tourists do come to eat at the restaurant, where they can get a discount by presenting a Magnolia sales receipt.
‘Nowhere to park’
With the growing popularity of Waco’s city center, is it time for a big public parking garage in the heart of downtown?
“They definitely bring in a lot of people, but I do hear a lot of locals talk about it: ‘I wanted to come, but there was nowhere to park, so I assumed you were busy,’ ” Johnson said.
Henderson said the parking crunch is having a big effect on the smaller food establishments and on office leases. She said River Square has 24,000 square feet of office space available, and Stone’s Throw has 17,000 square feet upstairs. But parking issues make that space a hard sell.
Trent Weaver, owner of Stone’s Throw, agreed that parking is a challenge to leasing that space.
“It purely depends on the type of tenant you put in there,” Weaver said. “You might have a 100-employee tenant interested, but there’s only 132 spaces for parking.”
Already, that parking lot serves Bangkok Royal, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Wing Stop and Teriyaki Park, as well as Bicycle World, which is preparing to move to a new space a block away. New clothing and spa boutiques and a liquid nitrogen ice cream shop are also in the works.
Weaver said he welcomes the traffic from Magnolia, but he said business in the river area has grown enough to justify structured parking.
“There’s no doubt we need a few parking garages strategically placed down here,” he said.
Henderson said Weaver might be right, though it might take millions of dollars and several years to get one built, and much more study would be required. She said City Center Waco in the next few weeks will start collecting new parking data to get a better gauge of what’s needed to help River Square and Stone’s Throw thrive.
“Everybody’s goal is that those places will be full,” she said.