With the growing popularity of Waco’s city center, is it time for a big public parking garage in the heart of downtown?

That’s a trick question. Such a garage already exists, hidden in plain sight atop the city’s Dr. Mae Jackson Development Center at 401 Franklin Ave.

Even on busy weekdays and during big weekend festivals, the four-level, 414-space parking structure is rarely in danger of filling up. City and downtown officials say it’s an underutilized resource but a crucial one as downtown redevelops and a popular farmers market prepares to move temporarily to Washington Avenue.

They say the challenge is letting people know the garage is there and putting up the necessary signs to help them navigate.

“If you’re going to make someone park in a parking garage you’ve got to make it as easy as possible,” said City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson on a visit to the garage this week.

And it’s not easy now, she said, especially for out-of-towners who already struggle with downtown’s one-way streets. To park at the garage, visitors have to turn off either Fourth or Fifth Street onto an alley, which has its own set of one-way signs.

“They’re already confused and frustrated,” Henderson said. “Frustration upon frustration builds up to a bad experience.”

Henderson and city officials are discussing a better permanent system of signs. In the meantime, volunteers with the Waco Downtown Farmers Market and downtown organizations will direct traffic and put up temporary signs on Saturday when the market reopens in the courthouse parking lot. Visitors are urged to use the parking garage or the county archives building, 215 N. Fifth St.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said he doubts that many locals even know about free public parking at the city structure.

Fisseler said that when he was city manager of Fort Worth, he encountered a similar invisibility problem with public parking garages.

“We built parking garages, but we did such a good job of disguising them, people didn’t see them,” he said.

Fisseler said that in one case, the city had to get a waiver from its own design requirements to put a neon sign pointing to the parking garage entrance. He said that might not be necessary here, but a more conspicuous entrance is needed.

‘Tourists need to know’

“I think we need to look at it,” he said. “Even if you put something on a website and local people know about it, tourists need to know about it, too.”

For an idea of the value of the parking garage, consider that typical parking structures cost about $20,000 per space to build. At that rate, building a 414-space garage today would cost almost $8.3 million.

The half-block concrete-and-brick structure dates back to 1958, a time when downtown business leaders were trying to recover from the 1953 tornado and saw parking as downtown’s biggest need.

Citizens National Bank built the complex for $1.5 million as a motor bank, with office space for private tenants. The parking decks were connected to other downtown buildings, including the main bank at 508 Austin Avenue, through a series of sky bridges, and some parking spaces were leased to other downtown businesses.

The city of Waco bought the building around 1992 for its water office, while leasing some of the building to nonprofit tenants and allowing Downtown Waco Inc. to offer paid parking there.

The city renovated the entire building in 2004 for $3.5 million as a one-stop development center including space for the planning and inspection departments. The water billing office still does business there, including at a drive-thru lane that brings in about 150 people a day, Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem said.

Around the time of the renovation, the city started offering free public parking, but it did not prove popular. A downtown parking study 10 years ago estimated that only 38 percent of the garage was used, even on peak days and counting spaces reserved for city employees.

Planning director Clint Peters, whose office is in the building, said the problem is a lack of connection to the ground.

“I think it’s a little difficult to get in and out of,” Peters said. “It needs to be managed better. Our parking garage needs to be upgraded to make it more accessible.”

He said public users have to walk down the ramp, use a staircase or use an elevator that leads into the first floor office building.

The downtown Public Improvement District in 2008 discussed the need to build an elevator that would lead to the ground floor outside.

But on a visit to the building this week with Henderson, it was apparent that such an elevator exists, though tucked away in a nook by the stairs outside the water office on the Franklin Avenue side.

Henderson said that elevator should be sufficient, as long as new signs are erected to guide people to it.

Peters agreed that the elevator needs to be better advertised.

“I’ve been here eight years, and I didn’t know about it,” he said.

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