A developer who failed to win public money for a 24-unit downtown apartment complex has drawn poor reviews for his penny-pinching redesign.
The project formerly known as the Mirada now is under construction at 701 S. Sixth St., but without the architectural cut stone and glass-block facade that developer Michael Wray initially presented to city officials.
Instead, the exterior of what is now called Belmont Cottages is clad in plain cement siding, resulting in barn-like structures Wray describes as a “Cape Cod design.”
Wray said the redesign was the result of the Waco City Council rejecting his request last summer for up to $240,000 from the Tax Increment Financing Zone.
The zone redirects a portion of tax revenue from downtown properties to incentivize downtown projects.
“We did have to do some value engineering because of the city changing the rules in the middle of game and not having TIF funds available,” Wray said in a voice message in reply to an interview request this week. “We had to go with a different style. I still think it’s going to be a great project, (but) when the city changes the rules in the middle of the game, projects have to adjust.”
Wray’s $240,000 request represented 15 percent of the $1.8 million project.
But the board for the TIF Zone recommended only a 5 percent match, using new criteria that prioritizes projects according to the goals of the Imagine Waco Plan for Greater Downtown.
Wray protested, saying that he had already secured a loan for the project and that incentives were needed to make it work.
With almost no explanation, the Waco City Council turned down the TIF board recommendation and gave Wray no money.
The council is not required to give TIF funds to any project, regardless of whether it meets local TIF guidelines.
Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. this week said the original design had some merit, but the redesign of the two-building complex is at odds with the city’s vision of urban redevelopment.
“I wouldn’t call it meeting the Imagine Waco urban design goals,” he said. “That’s his point to take — that he didn’t get TIF money so he didn’t comply.”
But Duncan said he isn’t convinced that apartment developers need public funds to be able to build attractive housing.
He pointed to the student-oriented development on the other side of Baylor.
“There’s no TIF money there, but there are definitely some aesthetically pleasing developments right next to ones that aren’t,” he said.
Megan Henderson, executive director of the Downtown Development Corp., agreed that the look of the Belmont Cottages projects has suffered in redesign.
“I would have to say, having seen the original renderings, this is not as pretty as it was,” she said. “I hate to call it a disappointment, but it kind of is. It’s not the visual high point it was originally designed to be.
“I think spare is OK, but I would prefer to see more openings, bigger windows. I would prefer to see some masonry to break up the appearance of the building. But I really think the more important issue is that it’s still going to bring the same number of new residents into downtown.”
The project sits along Sixth Street’s fast-food row, with neighbors including McAlister’s Deli, Sonic and Tres Mexican Restaurant.
Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez, whose district includes the project, said she hasn’t seen it since construction began.
Rodriguez made the motion to reject TIF funding for the apartments, saying at the time that “I’m just not in favor of the project.”
This week, she said she opposed it because of Wray’s track record as former general partner for the Heritage Square project on city land near City Hall, which suffered from cost overruns and investor lawsuits.
It went into bankruptcy protection after Wray was forced out as general partner.
“He didn’t do what he said he was going to do over there,” Rodriguez said. “I wasn’t sure about him.”
“He’s probably trying to get back at us” with the new design, Rodriguez said. “But if he had been successful at the first one, we wouldn’t have had the problem we have now.”
Duncan said he’d like to see stronger development standards along the South Sixth Street area and the rapidly developing area to the west, around the former Sul Ross Elementary School.
That area was not included in a “downtown overlay district” the council passed several years ago that added design requirements for the urban core of Waco, but it is part of a proposed “university overlay district” meant to protect Baylor-area neighborhoods from incompatible development.
One of the requirements under the proposed zone would be that at least 30 percent of a building facing a street would have to be windows or doors.
The Belmont Cottages complex does not appear to meet that standard.
City planning director Clint Peters said the project may not be “built to the same level of quality” as other recent downtown developments, but he said it will add housing to downtown, along with sidewalks and lighting.
“Once it’s finished, I think it will be a good project,” he said.