Owners of two vacant garages who are seeking to capitalize on the surge of downtown activity got a boost from the Tax Increment Financing Zone board on Thursday.

The TIF board recommended $488,078 for streetscape and façade improvements for The Containery, a $2 million project at 319 S. Fourth St. that would turn an old garage and a collection of shipping containers into space for 25 small businesses.

The board also recommended $477,464 for sidewalk, lighting and landscape improvements at the former Big Green Automotive garage, 1020 Franklin Ave. Builder Tate Christensen and two Balcones Distillery investors are hoping to create an office-retail-restaurant development complementing the distillery across the street.

The TIF board also signaled that it would be open to paying Christensen’s group to extend the sidewalk improvements past their property to Mary Avenue to accommodate tourist activity around Balcones.

The board recommends spending priorities for TIF funds, which come from a portion of property tax revenue generated on properties within a zone stretching from East Waco to 11th Street and from Jefferson Avenue to La Salle Avenue. The Waco City Council will make the final decision on the application.

Developers of both sites said they are hoping to harness the energy that new projects such as Magnolia Market and Balcones have brought to downtown.

Bill Wetterman Jr., the owner of the Containery property, said he has been overwhelmed to see the crowds of people walking by. Wetterman bought the century-old building from the city of Waco in 1999 when he developed the nearby Behrens Loft project, with the idea that it might be needed for parking. But it has sat empty since then, with no clear business potential.

“This building has gotten too expensive to let sit there, with all the taxes and insurance on it,” he said. “I put it on the market about a year ago but I didn’t really want to sell it.”

He said those prospects have changed in the last year, with foot traffic from the adjacent Dr Pepper Museum and from Magnolia Market, which is less than three blocks away.

“What’s happening in downtown is obviously exciting,” he said.

Wetterman said he would renovate the century-old garage and add a second floor and rooftop deck. In the space next to it, he would add 46 shipping containers in stacks, offering everything from sidewalk coffee service to startup food businesses, offices, even bed and breakfast lodging. The construction of the improvements would cost an estimated $2.5 million.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this,” Wetterman said. “I think it will add to the energy of downtown. I fully expect this to be a destination in and of itself. We’ll have billboards on Interstate 35 advertising it.”

TIF board members expressed enthusiasm for the concept during a tour of the property Thursday, though some had practical questions. Board member Malcolm Duncan Jr. questioned the decision to stack shipping containers along the Jackson Avenue side with no windows facing the street, suggesting that it would create an unfriendly pedestrian experience.

City staffers said the city might want to downplay Jackson for pedestrian activity anyway because of the adjacent Union Pacific Railway.

City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson recommended the project for funding, saying it helps connect the “Silo District” with new development near the Brazos River, while helping to incubate small business and adding to the tourism experience in downtown.

The TIF funds would pay for new first-floor windows and awnings, street lamps, improved sidewalks, landscaping and decorative fencing.

11th Street garage

Also Thursday, Christensen made the case that the cinder-block garage at 11th Street and Franklin could become a key asset for downtown. The L-shaped building has 20-foot ceilings and about 9,600 square feet of space, plus parking.

The garage housed a Goodyear tire dealership in the 1960s and’70s and most recently housed Big Green Automotive, which painted the formerly nondescript building an eye-throbbing green.

“When you drive down 11th Street, it jumps out at you like a big stinking billboard,” Christensen said. “Our intent is to make it a better billboard.”

Christensen and his partners, Balcones investors Michael Rockafellow and Stephen Germer, bought the property a few months ago for $285,000. Their conceptual renderings show a brick building with landscaping, awnings and covered patios, but the final design and use of the building has not been determined, Christensen said.

He said one thing it won’t be is a garage. The partners have had the hydraulic lifts removed and have passed up offers from potential tenants wanting to use it as a garage.

“I could have put a coat of paint on it and rented it,” Christensen said. “But being right here where it’s located, on the gateway to downtown, it needs to be bad--s. I’d like to make this corner stick out in a positive way.”

TIF board members recommended funds to build 8-foot-wide sidewalks around the corner lot, complete with cast-iron street lamps and street trees. The $477,464 also includes money for façade renovations and handicap-accessible ramps.

The cost of extending the sidewalk to Mary Avenue has not been calculated, but the TIF board will consider it as an amendment at the board’s next meeting.

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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