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American Bank to raze 'round bank' in Bellmead, open 2 new branches
 Mike Copeland  / 

The “round bank” at North Loop 340 and Interstate 35 will fall next year, having served as a conversation piece for Central Texas travelers and a set piece for Robert Redford in his recent movie, “The Old Man & the Gun.”

Opened in 1979, the current home to American Bank became a novelty for its distinct design. It captured the fancy of Dallas-based movie director David Lowery, who regularly traveled between the Metroplex and Austin and found the “round bank” a standout reflection of the era in which the prison escapee played by Redford made a nice living pulling off bank jobs.

In more ways than one, the bank has seen better days, American Bank President and CEO Dana Hassell said. American Bank announced Tuesday it would build two new branches in Greater Waco, one where the “round bank” now sits, another to serve Woodway where a limited drive-thru bank location has been leveled to accommodate a full-service branch scheduled for completion next year, Hassell said.

“You know, we tried hard to remodel the round bank, went through a deep evaluation, going so far as getting bids,” Hassell said. “But it was not economically feasible to get it up to serviceable condition for banking in 2019. It has a lot of deferred maintenance: sprinklers, elevators, the skin is bad. Add structural changes, and the costs piled up. It represented a fairly significant investment. I’d prefer not to get into specifics, but it was a lot of money.”

The bank has changed little in three decades, Hassell said. Remodeling efforts have been few and far between. The bank board meets there occasionally but typically convenes at the main bank across town.

At a hulking 25,000 square feet, the “round bank,” though a noteworthy presence in Central Texas, does not easily mesh with changes in the banking industry, said David Lacy, president of Community Bank and Trust.

“In today’s banking world, branches are typically a bit smaller and are purposed in a different way,” Lacy said. “These days, there is not as much transactional activity, more office meetings and advisory conversations.”

He congratulated American Bank on its decision to build more branches.

Hassell said replacing the “round bank” will proceed in phases, first with construction of a drive-thru facility at that site to serve customers during demolition and while the new banking center is being built.

The project should be complete in 2021, Hassell said.

The new 7,566-square-foot Bellmead location, which will incorporate facades that pay homage to the “round bank,” will include commercial drive-thru lanes, remote drive-thru interactive teller and a remote ATM, according to a bank press release.

In Woodway, a temporary branch is now open behind the construction site, according to the press release. Drive-thru, walk-in teller and night-drop deposit services will remain available throughout the building project, Hassell said.

“Those needing access to an ATM can access the one located inside the American Bank Plaza lobby,” 200 West State Highway 6, Hassell said.

When complete, the Woodway location will cover 5,497 square feet.

“The opening of two new locations — coming on the heels of significant expansion of our downtown Waco branch — is an extension of our commitment to meeting the needs of our customers both today and in the future,” Hassell is quoted as saying in the press release.

American Bank’s location at Third Street and Franklin Avenue expanded into a space formerly occupied by a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop.

The “round bank” was built in 1977 and 1978 and hosted a grand opening in January 1979. A full-page ad in the Tribune-Herald publicized the event.

In October 2017, then American Bank President David Hicks told the Tribune-Herald the bank was months into a design and bidding process to remodel the structure inside and outside. Bank officers and consultants were considering several options, including leveling the aging landmark and erecting a new bank with the latest technologies and efficiencies, Hicks said at the time.

“When you talk about a building that size, every decision is expensive,” he said at the time. “We are coming up with designs that would modernize the building yet retain the historical look. We’ve been asking contractors to prepare estimates on various iterations.”

Hicks said he did not know why the decision was made to build such a bank.

“I think the idea was just to build something unique, iconic, and they certainly accomplished that purpose,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere in the state of Texas and find someone who has driven I-35 who does not recognize it.”

Carla Pendergraft, who markets the Waco Convention Center, said she accompanied Redford on his visit to the bank and watched him repeat the shooting of a scene several times, savoring each take.

“Sometimes he would ring a little bell on the counter, sometimes not. Each time he did it a little differently,” Pendergraft said. “Occasionally, his stand-in would make an appearance, wearing the same hat Robert Redford wore in the movie. Redford would sit in one of the executive’s office, reading the newspaper.”

She said she will miss the “round bank.”

“That building is why the director, Lowery, chose Waco,” Pendergraft said. “He had seen it many times during his travels between Austin and Dallas and thought it looked very much like the ’80s period he wanted to capture. I showed him Washington Avenue, Elm Avenue, Austin Avenue. He loved Elm Avenue. He shot some scenes of our freeways. But life moves on. I don’t think the round bank is so historic a structure that anyone will be shedding tears over it. But, as I said, I will miss it.”

American Bank can trace its founding to 1952, when it was established as Bellmead State Bank. Mergers and acquisitions since then, including the joining of American Bank of Waco and American National Bank in 1987, created what is now American Bank, with about $445 million in assets.

Tears and cheers flow at Bell's Hill Elementary as Waco ISD school year begins
 Brooke Crum  / 

Prekindergarten student Adelaide DeLeon did not linger in the classroom doorway Tuesday morning, as tears welled up in her mother’s eyes and her father beamed, watching their youngest child start her first day of school.

Adelaide simply told her parents to go and walked straight into Kristi Lopez’s classroom at Bell’s Hill Elementary School, a bouquet of yellow flowers in hand to brighten her new teacher’s day.

“We thought it be would a lot harder,” said her mother, Becky DeLeon.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Becky DeLeon (left), her husband Adrian DeLeon, daughter Adelaide DeLeon and son Adrian DeLeon Jr. pose for a photograph on the first day of school at Bell’s Hill Elementary School.

The parents, Becky and Adrian DeLeon, have a rich history with Bell’s Hill that is continuing with their daughter, Adelaide. Her brother, Adrian DeLeon Jr. is attending first grade there this year, and their father also is a product of the South Waco school, which recently won high ratings from the state.

“We have a big heart for Bell’s Hill,” Adrian DeLeon said.

That was obvious from the bouquet in both of their children’s hands. Other students wandered past, carrying packages of construction paper and Kleenex, pencils and folders, but it appeared only the DeLeons thought to bring along flowers, as well.

“We’re excited to see everybody back at school,” Principal Rebekah Mechell said. “Teachers and staff have been preparing to make this the best year yet.”

Making the grade

Mechell is confident this will be the year Bell’s Hill receives an A rating under the state’s accountability rating system. The campus received a B rating of 88 from the state this year, the highest score of any campus in the district under rating system, which is largely based on standardized tests.

“We couldn’t do it without the staff we have, the kids and their wonderful parents,” Mechell said.

Bell’s Hill enrollment last school year was 772, according to the state. About half of those students — 46.9% — are learning English or have limited English capabilities, which is more than twice the district rate of 19.5%. And nearly all of Bell’s Hill students are considered economically disadvantaged, or 93.9% compared to a districtwide rate of 77%.

Additionally, the elementary school earned four out of six possible distinctions for academic achievement from the state, more than any other Waco ISD campus.

First day memories

Those achievements aside, it was back to business Tuesday morning. Parents made their children pause in front the school to snap a classic first-day-of-school photo with their cellphones, as choruses of “good morning” rang out from school staff members standing in doorways to welcome the sudden influx of students. The halls were empty just the day before.

Waco firefighters with Engine Co. 5 stood outside the school’s front doors and handed out Waco Fire Department stickers to students. Some students let loose a stream of tears when it came time to part with their parents, which did not seem any easier for the parents who walked away, looking back over their shoulders as teachers consoled their children.

The DeLeons said they were pleased with their children’s teachers this year. Their son, who moved onto Mrs. Quintero’s first grade class, also had Mrs. Lopez, who is teaching their daughter this year.

As 8 a.m. neared, the official start of the school day, Lopez tried to console a crying girl by handing her a pillow and telling her what a great school year she was going to have. The girl continued crying, but Lopez continued smiling.

“We’re going to have a wonderful year,” she said, before closing her classroom door. “Once they’re in my room, they’re my kids.”

City approves rezoning for townhomes, houses on Chapel Road
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

The Waco City Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday for a development with almost 400 homes on fewer than 40 acres on Chapel Road near Woodgate Intermediate School. But the developer and council members said the development density will come down before final plans are approved.

The development, known as Chapel Heights, would front Chapel Road in the 9800 block next to the Flats on Chapel Apartments and stretch to railroad tracks behind the apartments and an adjacent neighborhood. Woodway city limits start on the other side of the tracks.

Developer Nate Landreth had planned unit development zoning approved on 8 acres in June. On Tuesday, the council approved a 29-acre addition to the PUD, changing the zoning from residential. Landreth said the additional 29 acres became available for him to buy after the PUD process had already started on the initial 8 acres.

Plans call for 26% detached single-family homes, 55% single-family town homes and 19% multi-family town homes, with room for shared spaces and additional amenities. The maximum density now sits at 10.8 units per acre, but final approval hinges on density not exceeding 9 units per acre, officials said.

City Planning Director Clint Peters said higher density is appropriate for parts of the development. A section will directly border apartments, and a section will directly border railroad tracks.

“We felt like because of the nature of that triangular piece and how it’s up against the railroad track, up against some denser uses, we thought the density was appropriate there,” Peters said.

Councilwoman Andrea Barefield said she was unsure about the development’s streets, which include two long, straight streets that end in cul-de-sacs.

Councilman John Kinnaird said he is also concerned about the streets for emergency responses, and about the potential of straining existing sewer and water capacity.

“I don’t think it’s responsible to allow someone to build a house where firetrucks and emergency responders can’t get there in a timely manner,” Kinnaird said.

Peters said the plans meet city requirements for entry points that would allow emergency vehicles into the development, but the street layout likely will change.

“That is one of the things they’re looking at redesigning,” Peters said.

The council will have more opportunities to weigh in on the development, including for the PUD and for the platting of the lots.

The PUD concept plan states the first phase of work could start as early as this year with about 40 single-family lots and construction of entrances on Chapel Road and Chapel View Drive.

“Subsequent residential phases of similar size are planned to be constructed every year or two, as the market dictates,” the plan states.

top story
Voice of suicide victim to be heard beyond grave in sex abuse trial
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Clarisa Santos’ cries for help were not always heeded while she was alive, but her testimony will be heard from beyond the grave this week at her former stepfather’s trial, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.

Jose Manuel Gonzalez, 47, is on trial in Waco’s 19th State District Court on one count of continuous sexual abuse of a young child and one count of indecency with a child by contact. Prosecutors allege he sexually abused Santos, his former stepdaughter, for five years beginning when she was 8.

Clarisa, a 14-year-old Harmony Science Academy student, took her own life in May 2018, the day after she received a subpoena from the state to testify at Gonzalez’s trial, then set for last summer. After her death, the trial was postponed, and prosecutors Sydney Tuggle and Will Hix jumped through some unusual legal hoops to see that the girl’s statements to police and forensic interviewers would be admissible at Gonzalez’s trial.

Judge Ralph Strother granted a state motion two weeks ago that forfeited Gonzalez’s right to object to the evidence being used against him based on hearsay evidence and his right to confront witnesses against him. By approving the motion, the judge ruled that the testimony is admissible because Gonzalez “engaged in a course of action directed toward Clarisa Santos designed and intended to control, threaten and manipulate” her from reporting his actions.

Jurors instead will hear from Clarisa’s mother, Clara Santos, to whom the girl reported the abuse, initially to no avail. The jury will also hear testimony from police officers, forensic interviewers and others who talked to the girl after she reported the abuse.

The family was living in Keller when Clara Santos married Gonzalez. Clarisa was 6. When she was 8, she told her mother that Gonzalez was sexually abusing her, Hix said, but her mother did nothing.

Two years later, the family moved to Waco, and the abuse continued, Hix said. Clarisa’s mother caught Gonzalez sneaking out of Clarisa’s bedroom when she was 12 and she kicked him out at that time, Hix said.

‘Different ending’

“Clara Santos didn’t do a great job as a mother,” Hix said. “We don’t think she did a great job as a mother and we are not going to hide from that. Had she heard her daughter’s voice when she was 8, when she first reported this, maybe this story has a different ending.”

Gonzalez’s attorney, Chris Bullajian, deferred his opening statement Tuesday.

In a twist to this case that likely will play no role at Gonzalez’s trial, Clarisa Santos died in Robinson at the same location where FBI agents ultimately would shoot and kill Clara Santos’ boyfriend, Joshua Steven Mitchell, who also was known as Gio Michell.

Mitchell, 44, was killed July 25 after FBI agents serving an unspecified warrant at their home shot him after he reportedly threatened them. Federal records involving Mitchell’s case remain sealed.

Clara Santos and Mitchell said they wanted to create a foundation called One More Day to aid suicide prevention and gave the Tribune-Herald permission to use Clarisa’s name.

Clara Santos told the Tribune-Herald last year that she bought the gun Clarisa used to kill herself for protection after Clarisa thought she saw Gonzalez near their home on Stegall Drive in Robinson.