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Waco looks to update rules as interest in container development rises
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

City leaders are considering how best to regulate the use of repurposed shipping containers, which have become more widely accepted around the world as commercial and residential spaces.

A container-based, mixed-use venue for shopping and dining now underway in downtown Waco has not encountered any major planning, zoning or code enforcement obstacles, backers say. But growing interest in containers has city officials studying the implications for city planning and code enforcement.

While discussing it this week, city council members faced a familiar quandary: How should city rules be adapted, if at all, to handle a potentially valuable trend without compromising the integrity and history of neighborhoods?

Instead of banning the containers outright or creating a special permitting process that would invite the public to weigh in on applications, it appears the city will update its compatibility standards to provide direction for potential developers and for code enforcement officials.

Containery graphic 

A developer plans to renovate a century-old garage on South Fourth Street and add a second floor and rooftop deck (right). In the space next to it, he would add 46 shipping containers in stacks, offering everything from sidewalk coffee service to startup food businesses, offices, even bed and breakfast lodging.

RaineyStreetBars photo 

An Austin bar made entirely of repurposed shipping containers is pictured here. 

District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek requested city officials investigate the issue after constituents told him they were unhappy with a residential development along Colcord Avenue that, so far, consists of one green shipping container.

The project has also given the code enforcement office a headache or two.

“Not only was the property owner not really familiar with what he needed to do, but quite honestly, staff wasn’t either because this is typically not what we see,” said Randy Childers, a chief building official who oversees inspections and demolitions permits. “That’s a challenge. But it’s obviously one that can be remedied.”

Over the past 20 years or so, shipping containers have become more popular due to their mass availability, low cost, high durability, mobility options, spatial efficiency and environmental benefits, city planning director Clint Peters told the council this week. The United States has a surplus of shipping containers because it is expensive to send them back to the countries that first sent them full of goods.

In Waco, local coffeehouse Common Grounds uses one as a food truck, and a Walmart uses them for storage. The development known as The Containery, a $4 million investment at 319 S. Fourth St., is made entirely of containers and will host boutiques, a chocolate shop, lodging and patio dining.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Construction workers assemble the Containery downtown on Monday.

Waco real estate agent Gregg Glime said the project should be completed in mid-spring. Construction crews began stacking containers and installed a vertical one this week.

Glime said compliance with the energy code had to be addressed during the process, but there was nothing atypical in the code and zoning fulfillments from other downtown developments. It wasn’t so easy at first.

“Initially, we were getting kickback from anything from, where the containers are coming from, what they had in them, what color they were going to be, you name it,” Glime said. “… It’s just uncharted waters going into a different type of construction use like this.”

And Doreen Ravenscroft, the founder of Waco Cultural Arts, is planning a nonprofit venture on Elm Avenue known as ArtPlace, that will be made entirely of shipping containers. That project is in the final planning stages.

City of Waco rendering 

ArtPlace, a project slated for Elm Avenue, is proposed to be made entirely of shipping containers. 

Megan Henderson, executive director of the city-aligned nonprofit City Center Waco, said “cargotecture” is an ideal concept for mixed-use development, and it also meets the desires of the many tourists in Waco who “go exploring.”

“I think obviously there’s a mix of practicality and novelty,” she said. “And good downtown folks know that novelty is not to be dismissed, in terms of the value that it creates, because sometimes interesting architectural features of whatever kind are what first draws people into a development.”

Currently, the city does not have regulations specifically targeting shipping containers, but they are subject to more general standards. For example, a container used for backyard storage in a residential zoning district can’t take up more than 30 percent of the rear yard.

The city’s official site development ordinance states that for new structures, “materials should be selected for suitability to the type of buildings and style in which they are used, and for harmony with adjoining buildings.”

But city planners acknowledged that compatibility in a given neighborhood can be difficult to define, and there are no standards specific to shipping containers.

Council members asked Peters to write a draft proposal of standards that would cover containers.

Mayor Kyle Deaver predicted special permitting — a process that would likely require a container operator to obtain approval from city staff, the plan commission and the council — would only prompt neighborhood opposition to most projects. He also noted that Waco has banned manufacturing homes since 1992.

“When you talk about a single box, there’s not a whole ton of difference between those two things,” he said.

Deaver also acknowledged Waco’s affordable housing shortage and did not want to preemptively stifle a potential solution to a larger problem.

As containers grow in popularity and scope of design, leaders will prepare for a time when such developments could be far more common.

“It’s trying to find the right balance of letting people have a little flexibility in design and what they want to use the property with, and honoring the character of our neighborhoods,” Peters said.

Containers for The Containery soon to arrive downtown

Building blocks disguised as 4-ton cargo containers that can withstand hurricane-force winds soon will begin arriving in downtown Waco, where crews will stack the massive pieces of steel to build The Containery, a mixed-use venue for boutiques, a chocolate shop, lodging and patio dining.

Trump plan would force asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as cases are processed

Central Americans who arrive at U.S. border crossings seeking asylum in the United States will have to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed under sweeping new measures the Trump administration is preparing to implement, according to internal planning documents and three Department of Homeland Security officials familiar with the initiative.

According to DHS memos obtained by The Washington Post on Wednesday, Central American asylum seekers who cannot establish a “reasonable fear” of persecution in Mexico will not be allowed to enter the United States and would be turned around at the border.

The plan, called “Remain in Mexico,” amounts to a major break with current screening procedures, which generally allow those who establish a fear of return to their home countries to avoid immediate deportation and remain in the United States until they can get a hearing with an immigration judge. Trump despises this system, which he calls “catch and release,” and has vowed to end it.

Among the thousands of Central American migrants traveling by caravan across Mexico, many hope to apply for asylum due to threats of gang violence or other persecution in their home countries. They had expected to be able to stay in the United States while their claims move through immigration court. The new rules would disrupt those plans, and the hopes of other Central Americans who seek asylum in the United States each year.

Trump remains furious about the caravan and the legal setbacks his administration has suffered in federal court, demanding hard-line policy ideas from aides. Senior adviser Stephen Miller has pushed to implement the Remain in Mexico plan immediately, though other senior officials have expressed concern about implementing it amid sensitive negotiations with the Mexican government, according to two DHS officials and a White House adviser with knowledge of the plan, which was discussed at the White House on Tuesday, people familiar with the matter said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the administration’s new plan, if a migrant does not specifically fear persecution in Mexico, that is where they will stay. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is sending teams of asylum officers from field offices in San Francisco, Washington, and Los Angeles to the ports of entry in the San Diego area to implement the new screening procedures, according to a USCIS official.

To cross into the United States, asylum seekers would have to meet a relatively higher bar in the screening procedure to establish that their fears of being in Mexico are enough to require immediate admission, the documents say.

“If you are determined to have a reasonable fear of remaining in Mexico, you will be permitted to remain in the United States while you await your hearing before an immigration judge,” the asylum officers will now tell those who arrive seeking humanitarian refuge, according to the DHS memos. “If you are not determined to have a reasonable fear of remaining in Mexico, you will remain in Mexico.”

Mexican border cities are among the most violent in the country, as drug cartels battle over access to smuggling routes into the United States. In the state of Baja California, which includes Tijuana, the State Department warns that “criminal activity and violence, including homicide, remain a primary concern throughout the state.”

Hundreds in Tijuana protest caravan migrantsHolding signs reading, “Say no to the invasion,” hundreds in Tijuana, Mexico, demanded the caravan of migrants from Central America leave their country Nov. 18. (Reuters)

The new rules will take effect as soon as Friday, according to two DHS officials familiar with the plans.

Waco ISD board questions cost of Transformation Waco consulting firm
 Lauren Dodd  / 

Some Waco Independent School District board members are questioning the necessity and the price tag of using a consultant to implement a new in-district charter school for five struggling campuses.

Waco ISD has already paid the nonprofit Empower Schools Inc. of Boston $260,000 this year to set up the Transformation Waco charter system. Now it is set to pay another $500,000 for an “implementation phase,” for a total of $760,000 by the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The state requires a nonprofit consultant as part of a deal to shield the schools from closure and reorganize them with an influx of state money. The state will pay for the consultant services as part of a pair of grants totaling $5.4 million over 2.5 years. Still, some Waco ISD officials say they don’t see the value in the current partnership.

At a Waco ISD school board workshop last week, gasps and groans could be heard from the board and audience of district employees as they learned of the total cost.

“I am curious about why we need to spend $300,000 to pay someone to help us with the implementation phase of the transformation zone that is now six months down the road,” board member Angela Tekell said during the discussion.

Transformation Waco Executive Director Robin McDurham told Tekell that Transformation Waco was required to have a partner under the terms of the grant with the Texas Education Agency.

“When we wrote the grant we were under the impression that the grant does require a partner,” McDurham said. “But what we were not told was how much.”

The discussion last Thursday came after Waco ISD board members weighed the rising cost of health insurance for school employees and the inequitable distribution of library books at district schools.

Board member Allen Sykes added up the cost of each of the three Empower Schools bids out loud. McDurham confirmed his calculations.

“In total, for 2½ years it’s $760,000,” she said. “If we were required to do what other districts are now doing it would be a million.”

Board member Cary DuPuy and McDurham said Waco ISD didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“This is a complicated matter,” Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said. “We’re committed to doing the work. The partners are welcome to join us in our efforts. We agree that it is exorbitant in terms of the fees that were paid.

“But one thing is for sure, Dr. McDurham and I are committed to keeping local control of our schools. It has required us to jump some hoops, bend but not break on some of our beliefs about taxpayer dollars. And your points are well taken about our partner.”

Waco ISD agreed this spring to create a nonprofit charter school system with an independently appointed board to oversee the five schools, using Waco ISD staff.

The schools are Indian Spring Middle School, G.W. Carver Elementary School, Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School and J.H. Hines Elementary School. That option, created by Senate Bill 1882, shields underperforming schools from the threat of closure and gives them extra per-student funding and large grants.

Waco ISD was the first public school district in Texas to pursue the incentives of Senate Bill 1882. The district will get more than $2 million in total per-pupil funding and $5.4 million in grants over the 2.5-year program period.

Nelson said the school district would work on turning the schools around regardless of the charter school agreement.

“We were working on transformation in Waco ISD well before we applied for relief from Senate Bill 1882,” he said. “Even if they (Empower Schools) weren’t at the table, yes, we would still be doing this critical and urgent work.”

Nelson said the school board will likely continue to see “vague” or “elusive” agenda items related to Transformation Waco because of the state’s hand in the partnership.

“If this board is so uncomfortable with the amount of money we’re spending, then all the more reason you should expect us to improve our student outcomes in our schools, because that is the quickest way to not encumber these types of financial relationships that are tied to Senate Bills or House Bills that have afforded us this relief,” he said.

Following Waco’s lead, districts across the state, including Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, San Antonio and Spring Branch ISDs, are in the planning stages of their own transformations.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said SB 1882 grantees are required to work with a partner during the planning phase. However, Callahan said Waco ISD has the ability to select another partner for the implementation phase.

“Now that they are past the planning grant phase and into the implementation grant phase, there is no TEA requirement that they use a specific partner,” she said. “That is a decision for Waco ISD and (Transformation) Waco.”

She said the TEA has a list of six other approved partners.

Callahan did not respond to a request for examples of specific services provided by Empower Schools.

Empower Schools Senior Director Matt Matera said the consultant group acts as a liaison between Transformation Waco and the TEA; supports the new school board; helps create strategies relating to autonomy, school improvement and talent pipeline strategies; and advises McDurham on the implementation of the upcoming spring break academies for struggling students.

The spring academy is one way Matera hopes Transformation Waco teachers will feel recognized and empowered.

The five schools’ autonomy from traditional public school regulations is crucial in the zone’s success, Matera said.

“The cheesy thing I say is the Spiderman idea that with great power comes great responsibility,” Matera said. “I think the idea is that school principals and teachers will get tons of decision-making power in their schedule and curriculum, and in exchange for all of this autonomy then it’s going to be clearer that the outcomes of their efforts and outcomes on test scores, student happiness, and many other measures are going to be directly tied to the effectiveness of what schools do. Then it becomes the responsibility of educators to do great things with the power that they have.”

Matera said he hopes Waco ISD will continue the relationship with the nonprofit because “there is a real benefit” to making sure Transformation Waco succeeds.

“I think often things go awry in implementation,” Matera said. “I have a lot of faith in people in Waco but I’m hopeful that with our experience working in other zones that we’d add value and help make it more likely that this is as successful as Waco kids deserve it to be.”

The Waco ISD board will review Empower Schools’ bid at the next school board meeting.

Renovations approved for zoo entrance, water offices and City Hall
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

Three public spaces in the central city are set to receive facelifts in the coming months.

Physical improvements to the Cameron Park Zoo entrance building, the city of Waco water department office and the second floor of Waco City Hall were approved by the city council Tuesday.

The zoo entrance building, consisting of a pair of two-story structures connected by an overhead walkway and three ticket booths, will receive updated versions of 28 sets of windows and 24 sets of doors. The wooden frames of the current windows and doors are rotting and will be replaced with aluminum. An electric door will also be installed at the souvenir shop and café.

“There’s some things that have just aged, and over time, just need to be repaired so they’re more energy efficient,” Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson said. “We want to make sure we’re providing a good-looking space, too.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Doors and windows to the Cameron Park Zoo entrance building will be replaced in a $363,000 renovation project.

The city awarded the contract for the $363,000 project to the Waco-based company Tom Wright Construction LLC. The funds were available in an account set aside for facilities in the capital improvement program. Construction will take about four months.

The water department building at 425 Franklin Ave. will undergo an interior refurbishment of the first-floor lobby, business office, restrooms and second floor offices. Work on areas frequented by staff and public will be performed on nights and weekends.

City Manager Wiley Stem III said the building, which houses water offices, billing spaces, a call center and engineering offices, has received one carpet replacement and some touch-up since the last remodel in 1996.

Lorena-based Flores Roofing and Construction LLC won the contract for the $308,000 project. Capital improvement funds will also finance this project, which is expected to last four months.

“This is just a repaint, refresh, recarpet, reflooring of 22,700 square feet of space,” Stem said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

The second floor of Waco City Hall will receive a renovation worth about $90,000. 

The second floor of City Hall will receive a new wall, flooring, wall finishes with base boards, a suspended ceiling, door frames and doors, and a modification of the existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The human resources department will use the renovated office area.

Flores Roofing and Construction also won the bid for the $94,000 project, expected to take 45 days. Funding is available through the general operating fund.

Mayor Pro Tem Alice Rodriguez praised city staff for awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses, saying those occasions have been all too rare in her 23 years on the council.

“I think a lot of (minority-owned businesses) are a little hesitant, and a little nervous and a little afraid too, but I think when they see someone actually breaking ground, they’ll be more comfortable in bidding,” Rodriguez said.

Landfill update

Also on Tuesday, the city council approved the purchase of 20 acres of land at 4550 TK Parkway in Axtell for $396,550.

Mayor Kyle Deaver said the tract would be used as an additional buffer to a proposed landfill at the intersection of State Highway 31 and TK Parkway, should the city opt to pick the site over its original proposal adjacent to the Waco Regional Landfill.

The city has now spent about $5.4 million for 1,290 acres, which is more than five times the size of its current landfill site near West Highway 84.

Residents of Axtell and the leaders of Limestone and Hill counties have shown fierce opposition to the landfill.

Crack seal program

The council also approved about $1 million for crack sealing, the process of cleaning and sealing cracks in asphalt pavement. The city awarded the contract to Leander-based Bennett Paving Inc.

The purchase gives the city 400,000 pounds of material to cover an estimated 123.6 centerline miles of streets and parking lots. The initiative will include crack sealing in each council district.

“This is a critical component in the street program because it stabilizes the streets that have the cracks in them that we can get in there relatively cheaply through the winter, salvage those streets so they’re in the right condition to move right along with the street program next spring,” Stem said.