Waco’s new designation as a Texas Main Street City is starting to pay off as state historic preservation officials provide expertise to downtown planners and business owners.

Officials from the Texas Historical Commission last week spent three days in downtown and the Elm Avenue corridor assessing the building stock and the potential for reviving the heart of the city. They presented a preliminary report with recommendations for improving the downtown pedestrian experience and helping to fix up old buildings.

Debra Drescher, coordinator of the Texas Main Street program, said she was impressed with Waco’s downtown and the existing efforts to develop it.

“You have incredible architecture in downtown,” Drescher said. “You have wonderful bones in place to build upon.”

But the team also commented that some building renovations in recent years lack pedestrian appeal and historic integrity.

And the report states that spaces between downtown “activity centers” are disconnected with too much surface parking and “dead space,” and as a result, “the experience on foot is disorienting.”

At a public meeting last week, the team presented some preliminary recommendations, including:

• Improving lighting on streets as well as in store windows, on trees and atop buildings.

• Lowering the bar for getting existing facade improvement grants for historic buildings, especially on Elm Avenue.

• Creating a “family-friendly plaza” as a gateway to the Elm Avenue corridor.

• Adding way-finding signs between attractions, showing directions and distances.

• Creating an urban park plaza on the county parking lot between the courthouse and the 500 block of Austin Avenue.

County Judge Scott Felton, who attended last week’s meeting, said in an interview that he is open to making that parking lot an inviting space with landscape improvements.

“With the right design, you can maintain almost all your parking and yet change the whole look,” he said.

He said the Main Street team also could be valuable in helping the county find grants to do historic preservation projects at the courthouse and other properties.

“I would have interest in the eye appeal around the courthouse,” he said. “Preservation is a high priority.”

Coordinating strategies

Megan Henderson, executive director of Waco Downtown Development Corp., said the state Main Street visit challenged the various downtown improvement groups to coordinate their strategies.

In addition to the DDC, which administers the Main Street program locally, downtown has the Tax Increment Financing Zone and the Public Improvement District, which provide development incentives and special services.

She said the groups will discuss how to restructure a little-used facade improvement grant program so more business owners will use it.

The program requires building owners to do at least $10,000 worth of work on a building to qualify for any money, and $20,000 to get the full amount.

The state Main Street team recommended lowering the minimum to $250 to encourage smaller-scale projects.

Sam Brown, who co-owns many of the old buildings on Elm Avenue, said that would be a welcome move.

Meanwhile, he said Henderson already has connected him with an architect from the Main Street program, and the consultations have been helpful.

“They came and went through a number of our buildings and gave opinions on which he thought were worthy of keeping and structurally sound enough, and which had problems that made it really inadvisable,” he said.

Brown said the consultations will guide him and his sister, who co-owns the buildings, in marketing the buildings to appropriate users who can realize a vision of Elm Avenue as a destination.

But he said he doesn’t expect Elm Avenue to be transformed overnight.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was an effort to get some sparks started on Austin Avenue, and you’ve seen how long it’s taken to get that momentum going,” he said. “We’re not going to catch up to Austin (Avenue) in a couple of years.”

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