The $100 million Brazos Promenade project gained momentum Friday as the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board approved $20.2 million in public improvements for the project.
With a 7-0 recommendation from the TIF board, the funding proposal goes to the Waco City Council for final approval Nov. 16 and Dec. 6.
Pending council approval, a major site cleanup will start in January, followed by two years of construction work starting late next year.
“I’m just glad we got to this point,” said TIF member Malcolm Duncan Jr., who was involved with the project as a past mayor. “I’m very pleased to have public money available for these public improvements.”
Of the TIF funds, $8 million would go to the city itself to clean up the 16-acre riverfront site straddling University Parks Drive, where studies have found large amounts of building debris and household trash.
Another $12.2 million would go to the developer, Catalyst Urban Development, for on-site and off-site improvements, including utilities, streets, landscaped sidewalks, improvements along University Parks Drive and a 170-space public-private parking garage.
Catalyst also would renovate the Waco Downtown Farmers Market into a landscaped urban park, which would be designed in early 2017 with input from public workshops. The popular farmers market would have to be temporarily relocated during the first phase of construction, from early 2017 through part of 2018.
In its first phase, Catalyst is planning 264 dwelling units and an array of restaurant and retail offerings, followed quickly by a second phase in 2018 with a 12-story full-service hotel at the site of the current fire tower, which will be razed. It also includes a destination indoor-outdoor restaurant between the farmers market and an existing water feature on the riverwalk.
A third phase would include more restaurants and active public spaces.
Paris Rutherford, principal of Catalyst, said he has all the financing lined up for the project and will be ready to go as soon as the site is clean.
“We’re swinging for the fences here,” Rutherford said on a tour of the property Friday morning with the TIF board. “We’re not trying to hit a single. But we’re also trying to do something that can get done.”
He said the development should have ripple effects throughout downtown.
“I see this as a neighborhood of downtown,” Rutherford said. “The area around the (Magnolia) silos is another neighborhood. Webster Avenue connects both of those, but the only way to make that work is if the public improvements are high-quality.”
Those public improvements include wide sidewalks with lighting, street trees, decorative lighting, benches and trash cans. The public money would help establish a traditional city-style grid of streets within the development. Six blocks of University Parks Drive would also be upgraded with lighted sidewalks, and the six-lane boulevard would be narrowed to four for the sake of “traffic calming.”
Rutherford said the current street design doesn’t favor pedestrians.
“It looks real suburban,” he said. “It doesn’t look like what downtown is becoming.”
The street grid would be designed to be extended into the large neighboring property along University Parks Drive, owned by Joe Beard and Rick Sheldon of Brazos River Partners.
Mike Anderson, a spokesman for that partnership, attended the TIF meeting Friday. In an interview Anderson said the partnership intends to connect with the street grid as it moves forward in the near future with development plans.
Those plans include several hundred dwelling units and a large full-service hotel, he said. The partnership is expected to seek millions of dollars of TIF funds in the coming months.
Depleted treasure chest
The Brazos Promenade will deplete much of the treasure chest the TIF zone has accumulated in recent years, leaving an estimated $971,699 at the end of the 2016-17 fiscal year.
But Assistant City Manager Cynthia Garcia said that’s a conservative estimate that may change. The riverfront cleanup may cost substantially less than budgeted, for example.
The balance is expected to rebound quickly, partly because the project itself will contribute $1.4 million a year into the TIF zone.
Bob Sheehy, who has been a TIF board member for two decades, said he remembers when the TIF tax base was so small that funding a project like this was almost unthinkable. Sheehy said the riverfront property has always been a top TIF priority.
“We know the river is an asset,” he said. “At least people before me have been smart enough not to spend money first and then hope people will come.”