Much of the history of La Salle Avenue sits in plain sight.
On the south end, an iconic burger joint and a drive-in theater-turned-flea market greet motorists heading to the traffic circle. On the other end, Baylor University athletics facilities and student apartments hug the Brazos River. In between are numerous antique shops, memorial stores and restaurants that date back to the decades when La Salle was the main route for Dallas-to-Austin traffic through Waco, before Interstate 35 was finished in 1970.
Now business owners are starting to write a new chapter for the 2.6-mile thoroughfare as tourism picks up both in downtown and at the nearby Magnolia Table restaurant Chip and Joanna Gaines have opened on the circle. In the last few months, La Salle merchants have been meeting regularly with city planners and economic development leaders about how to attract new businesses, improve curb appeal for visitors and make the corridor more accessible and pedestrian friendly.
They envision a walkable La Salle Avenue lined with shops and restaurants attracting the same tourists flocking to the ventures created by the Gaineses, stars of the TV show “Fixer Upper.” It would be a vivid departure from the past — from its midcentury heyday as a six-lane main drag, or its relatively quiet life as a local road post-1970, when it officially became Business 77.
“It used to be a booming business-type area, and that’s changed over the years,” Brazos Feed & Supply owner Gary Payne said.
Payne is part of the group planning for the future.
“There’s some good ideas there,” he said. “From my perspective, I’m 58 years old, and in five to 10 years, it’d be nice if I could retire. But I’ve got two kids in college, and this is what I do to get them through school. I hope I’m still here 10 years from now. I hope the store is still here. It’s got a long history in Waco.”
According to the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, traffic counts in the area dropped by about a quarter from 2005 to 2010. In that time, traffic between the circle and South 18th Street dropped from 18,500 to 13,800 vehicles per day, while counts between University Parks Drive and Marlin Highway dropped from 10,310 to 7,400.
By 2016, La Salle Avenue’s average daily traffic had ticked up to 14,700, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Still, the traffic count remains well below the road’s capacity, Waco MPO Director Chris Evilia said.
“It’s kind of a six-lane thoroughfare, which is probably a lot more capacity than we really need,” Evilia said. “So I think these concepts that are coming out organically from these discussions from property owners along the corridor, I think are very consistent with what we are kind of thinking long term for La Salle.”
Brazos Feed & Supply has had its location since 1996, and the company has been in Waco since 1952. Payne called La Salle Avenue “one of the busiest streets in town” and said it benefits from motorists avoiding I-35 construction.
Another fixture is El Charro Café, a 47-year-old Mexican food restaurant at 23rd Street. Owner Juan Manuel Lopez said with a laugh that the site used to be called “El Truckstop.”
“We have established business for many years,” Lopez said, adding that 20 percent of customers are from out of town.
“I don’t think we go backward,” he said. “I think we’ll go forward.”
Circle Hardware owner Larry Dagley said the initial talks started a couple of years ago with Joe Rodriguez, the late president of the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The popularity of Magnolia Market at the Silos and the growth of Baylor University have inspired the talks about how La Salle Avenue can also be a destination.
“More and more people are talking about Waco being a destination,” Dagley said.
Within the past year, other business owners have joined in discussing the future more concretely.
“We went and mentioned to the city that we liked to think about La Salle and how it develops — what role the property owners might play in that, what role the city should play in it, and what role TxDOT should play in it,” he said.
City Center Waco Director Megan Henderson has helped facilitate talks with city officials and frame the discussions on private development and roadway designs.
“I think what’s tough for lay people to really plug into about how cities operate is there seems to be study after study after study,” Henderson said. “But the physical development of a roadway corridor like La Salle that is really complicated, involves a ton of stakeholders, impacts a bunch of different private properties and is trying to meet multiple needs as a facility. The way you do that is engaging a planning firm.”
In the meantime, the talks are a positive look to the future, she said.
On the other side of I-35, businesses expanding downtown and on Elm Avenue have benefited from special-use taxing districts. A consultant recently told the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board to consider setting guidelines for which new businesses should apply for its funds, which consist of a portion of tax revenue from certain properties to fund nearby development.
Henderson said the process of identifying and attracting desired developments is still being considered.
“It really runs the gamut from something that would be very intense, like creating a (public improvement district) for example, that would draw an assessment from property owners and then use that assessment to potentially pay for services, or, creating a TIF, which the taxing authorities would need to agree on,” she said. “And the TIF may or may not be the right tool to do the kinds of things they want to see done.”
A volunteer economic development committee of “district ambassadors” is another option.
La Salle Avenue may be best known now for its slew of antique shops: Junque in the Trunk, The Junky Monkey and Riverside Relics, to name a few. Locals still patronize the older businesses, including the memorial stone businesses that sit near Oakwood Cemetery: Phipps Memorial, Cen-Tex Monuments LLC and Dietz Memorial Co.
Dagley said antique shops inspired by the Magnolia aesthetic make a solid foundation, but variety is also needed.
“We’d also like to see some different kinds of shops that would be interesting for people and some interesting restaurants and venues that would be interesting and inviting to people,” he said. “We don’t want it to be automobile row or antique row, but a combination of some things.”
In order for those to thrive, the six-lane stretch with a loosely-followed 40 mph speed limit must slow down, planners say. It could become a four-lane boulevard with a wider median, more sidewalks, crosswalks and lights, Evilia said.
“It’s got kind of this shoulder on the very outside, which I don’t think anyone really knows what its true purpose is for,” he said. “Is it parking or is it something else? I think (we should) probably better define what that space is and how it ought to be used. … I think even under the most aggressive growth scenarios, a four-lane facility should be able to accommodate those traffic volumes.”
Another historical business on Circle Road is Health Camp, a burger restaurant open since 1949. Operating manager Joe Moore said the construction of I-35 did not affect his business much.
“It didn’t have a negative impact because we’re right on the Valley Mills Drive exit,” Moore said.
The Gaineses took over the former Elite Café with Magnolia Table, which specializes in breakfast and brunch. They have partnered with the city of Waco to provide a shuttle between the downtown silos and the restaurant via La Salle, with stops available along the way.
The February arrival of the restaurant is evident not only by the scores of customers and increased traffic on Circle Drive. Dagley’s store advertises its shiplap outside. A sign for the La Salle Shoppes also welcomes the Gaineses to the neighborhood.
Alfred Solano, president of the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the street’s Spanish-inspired fixtures should be honored.
“We should be a part of the conversation,” Solano said. “I think that clearly the demographics show that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing. Part of the growth is in the entrepreneurs. As a chamber of commerce, we’re very much concerned with workforces and workforce jobs and jobs coming from entrepreneurs creating new opportunities.”
As the thoroughfare’s businesses old and new serve loyal visitors, talks will continue about La Salle Avenue’s future.
“I’d certainly like to see more thriving businesses benefit from traffic from downtown to the circle area,” City Manager Wiley Stem III said. “It’s got great potential.”