A new residential development planned for downtown Waco will transform the former S.H. Kress and Co. general store on Austin Avenue into luxury lofts.

Kress Lofts will feature up to three loft units that buyers can custom-design to their personal tastes. The building, at 609 Austin Ave., also will have a residential parking garage and space for retail lease on the ground floor.

Shane Turner, one of the project’s partners, said the building renovation will leave much of the original facade untouched to preserve its historical integrity.

“From the city’s perspective, it needs to be historical or you need to do something completely different, and I definitely agree with (doing a historical restoration),” Turner said. “Otherwise, it could end up just looking like a big shopping center, and you don’t want that. You want things to be unique in downtown.”

The project was given the green light by the downtown tax increment fund board Jan. 24. The board recommended allocating $228,900 in TIF dollars to assist with the renovation, which will cost an estimated $1.5 million.

The TIF collects tax revenues from the city, county, Waco Independent School District and McLennan Community College and invests it in economic development projects for downtown Waco, the Brazos River corridor and Elm Avenue.

The project still has to be approved by city council before the funds are awarded.

Turner’s group is moving quickly in marketing the complex, which is slated to open in September. Turner said he already has sold one of the loft spaces and is in talks to sell another.

He attributes the rapid response to a surge in downtown development interest.

“Just in the last year, I’ve noticed that the interest in downtown has exploded,” Turner said. “The first (downtown condo) project I did two years ago, I had to beg people to come look at it. Now I have people calling me, calling my realtor before we even start a project to see if they can get involved or get a space or to see what it’s selling for.”

Turner is involved with several downtown development projects, including the Woolworth Suites commercial building at 605 Austin Ave. that will include a CrossFit Gym, and Pura Vida Day Spa and Salon, set to open at 708 Austin Ave. in April.

His group also is spearheading Franklin Place, a mixed-use building under construction on the 600 block of Franklin Avenue that will include 145 residential units and business and office space.

All of the projects received TIF money.

“My partners and I, we’re downtown a lot, so we listen to what people want,” Turner said. “And then being in business, we kind of know what’s been successful. So if we get an idea that sounds good, we move on it.

“In order for downtown to be successful, people have to live downtown. And in getting people to live downtown, you have to have something for them to do. So it’s a ‘chicken before the egg’ sort of deal.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Assistant City Manager George Johnson said while it is unusual to see so much new activity concentrated in one area of downtown, it’s a positive movement that the city hopes will spark more interest in the area and carry over to neighboring streets.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping that . . . people will see the synergy — whether the interest is local, state or national organizations and entities — and will want to come into downtown and see it as a great place to do business.”

The TIF also recommended granting $78,976 for a covered pavilion in Cameron Park Zoo. The Meadows Pavilion would be located on what is now a grassy, open area.

Zoo Director Jim Fleshman said the new pavilion would allow more opportunities to host private events, such as parties, weddings and corporate gatherings, and expand the zoo’s educational and staff training programs.

The zoo hosts 10 to 15 corporate events and up to 10 weddings per year, but on occasion the facility has to direct people to other venues because it does not have a covered space.

“There are some time frames during certain seasons where you have to have a backup plan, and that’s spring and fall,” Fleshman said. “The weather can be unpredictable, it can rain or get cold or some kind of weather issue may come up, and an outdoor event doesn’t lend itself well to inclement weather.”

The city council also will have final approval for the pavilion, which Fleshman hopes can be completed before the annual Zoobilee fundraiser June 25-26. The zoo already has secured grants from Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Waco Foundation to help pay the $526,647 in costs.

Green Mountain Energy also donated $140,000 to purchase solar panels that will be used to power lights and ceiling fans in the pavilion.

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