The downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board on Thursday will consider swallowing three big pedestrian-oriented projects in one big bite.

The board will consider an $8.9 million bond to fund a decorative lighting project on four downtown underpasses, several blocks of lighted sidewalks near Magnolia Market and a complete renovation of the historical Suspension Bridge.

The board, which recommends funding to the Waco City Council, meets on the third floor of City Hall at noon Thursday. The TIF Zone is funded through a portion of local property tax received from downtown properties.

City staff is requesting a bond with a 14-year life to knock out what they see as three urgent projects:

  • $5.5 million for a complete overhaul of the 1870 Suspension Bridge, including new decking and cables and reinforcement of the towers and anchors, a project council members have said is essential
  • $1.3 million for sidewalks along Webster Avenue from Seventh Street to 11th Street, as well as a block of Ninth Street between Webster and Clay avenues
  • $2.1 million for decorative LED lighting under four future Interstate 35 underpasses at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, University Parks Drive, Fourth and Fifth streets, and 11th and 12th streets.

Payment on the bonds would be $906,000 this year and nearly $800,000 annually in coming years.

The Texas Department of Transportation will start a $300 million project next year to rebuild and expand Interstate 35. But the state doesn’t have money to beautify the underpasses in downtown as local arts and pedestrian organizations have requested to make them feel safe and welcoming.

Based on conversations with Creative Waco and Waco Walks, city officials are recommending “aesthetic LED color column lighting” on the bridge piers at the four downtown crossings. The light panels would be 4 to 6 feet wide and would shine on the columns, with colors controlled by the same committee that controls the Brazos River bridge LED light display.

At the Fourth and Fifth street overpass, an extra artistic feature would be incorporated to encourage movement between Baylor University and downtown. With the expansion of I-35, that interchange will include almost an acre of paved surface.

Arts groups have suggested lighting up those expanses with a series of suspended globes. The globes would have lights inside that would shine through metal carvings to create patterns of shadow on the pavement below.

The idea comes from a similar project in San Antonio, called “Ballroom Luminoso,” which uses globes made of bicycle parts.

Joe O’Connell, a partner in Tucson-based JB Public Art, said his firm wanted to enliven a bleak underpass on a budget of about $100,000.

“We looked at it and said, ‘My goodness, there’s so much space here you couldn’t even cover it with duct tape for the budget we have,’ ” he said. “There’s always a danger of graffiti when you put something in a place that’s not loved. So we decided to go with lights.”

Creative Waco executive director Fiona Bond said that in Waco, the metal patterns could be tweaked to represent local themes.

Regardless of the details, Bond said she is encouraged to see the city and TxDOT having a serious discussion about aesthetics for the I-35 project.

“These kind of in-between places are often make-or-break in how comfortable people feel walking or cycling or being outside their car,” she said. “I’m looking at this being a test run for involving art and design for other civic planning questions.”

The proposed work on Waco’s oldest bridge is more structural than aesthetic.

The city this year hired Patrick Sparks, an engineer with historic preservation experience, to review the condition of the Suspension Bridge. He said the bridge is still sound for pedestrian use, but it needs some $5.6 million in work over the next decade to keep it from deteriorating further.

The city already has $632,000 budgeted this year to repair the bridge’s wooden decking, treat steel supports and rehabilitate anchor houses. But Sparks recommended that the city in coming years replace the wooden decking with concrete and spend millions to replace anchor rods and cables.

At a September work session on the bridge, Mayor Kyle Deaver urged staff to pursue an accelerated time frame for repairing the bridge.

Parks and recreation director John Williams said Wednesday that he is now hoping to bid the entire project by next fall and have it completed by the bridge’s 150th anniversary in 2020.

Williams said compressing the timeline will reduce the inconvenience to the public and reduce the overall cost.

Meanwhile, the Webster Avenue sidewalk project is a response to Magnolia Market and the flood of tourists it draws — up to 1.3 million this year, according to city officials.

By extending sidewalks on both sides of Webster Avenue from Magnolia Market to 11th Street, the project could encourage more people to walk toward other emerging attractions, including a new boutique hotel at the old Geyser ice plant and Balcones Distilling Co.

The sidewalks would be at least 9 feet wide with antique-style lamps, trees and accessibility ramps.

Jim Reed, a Waco streets official, said the broken sidewalks along Webster cause people to walk in the street.

“We want to make it more welcoming, accessible and safe by improving the border areas,” Reed said. “I feel like we’re somewhat behind because of the number of people walking in that area. We’re trying to be a little more proactive.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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