An ambitious $3.8 million effort to transform Elm Avenue with wide sidewalks, street trees, lampposts, benches and bike lanes got a boost Thursday from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board.

The city of Waco is applying for a state-federal transportation grant that would fund most of the “streetscape” project between the Brazos River and Garrison Street. It would be the biggest public improvement in decades in the once-thriving commercial corridor.

The TIF board agreed Thursday to allot $956,200 toward the project, which includes design and engineering, contingency and the required 10 percent local match for construction. The item passed 5-0 and will go to Waco City Council for final approval.

The project would replace crumbling sidewalks with new ones 8 to 10 feet wide. It would add handicap-accessible ramps and rails, even in sections where the sidewalk is several feet above the street. The project would span more than 4,000 feet on each side of the street.

City engineering capital program manager Jim Reed, who is heading up the project, expects it to transform the corridor.

“I grew up in Waco, and to see us even talking about that is an excitement for us,” Reed said. “It’s an incredible area for growth and a way to get community involved on both sides of the river.”

The city will submit its application by May 22 for the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Alternatives Set Aside program, which is administered here through the Texas Department of Transportation.

Reed said he thinks the Elm Avenue project is an ideal candidate to get the requested $2.8 million in state and federal funding.

“It’s one of those projects that makes it hard to say no,” he said.

Reed said the project will be challenging to design and build, in part because the existing sidewalks are at widely varying heights. Many of the corridor’s buildings were built at the turn of the 20th century, when Elm was prone to flooding from the Brazos River.

In many places, the sidewalks will have to be extended into the street, which itself is underlain by paving bricks and old drainage structures. Still, he said, the wide sidewalks are necessary.

“One thing we want to have in a streetscape project is a place for people to gather,” Reed said. “We don’t want to do narrow sidewalks. Nobody likes to walk in a duck fashion, one after another. We’d like people to have an opportunity to walk side by side.”

Reed is working on preliminary engineering work with in-house staff and plans to assemble a team of landscape architects and more specialized engineers to design the project. The city also will collect input from neighbors and the general public before creating the final design.

‘Do it right’

“You need to do it right the first time, and community outreach is the way to do it right,” he said.

Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, endorsed the project at the TIF meeting Thursday.

“Redoing the streetscape to create pedestrian activity is a benefit for the neighborhood and neighborhood development,” Henderson said. “The streetscape aspect creates a physical impression that there’s life and investment and activity going on. It’s going to be fantastic for commercial development.”

The city also is applying for funding through the same program to build sidewalks and bike lanes along Gurley Lane and South 12th Street, but the Elm project has priority, Reed said.

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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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