The finalist to develop the city’s 17-acre riverfront presented a vision Tuesday for the “Brazos Promenade,” a regional attraction with places to play, stay, boat, eat, shop and work.
Catalyst Urban Development is proposing to create boat slips, a “waterfront tavern on the green” and extensive parklike spaces along the river that could host leisure activities and concerts as well as the Downtown Farmers Market.
The company would build four-story buildings in the blocks around Webster Avenue and University Parks Drive, housing hundreds of residential, restaurant, office and retail units. And the firm envisions a 150-unit “enhanced service” hotel next to the new Interstate 35 bridges, with a boat-accessible restaurant on the first floor.
“We believe this is about a waterfront that’s connected to downtown and Baylor with a river running through it,” said Catalyst co-founder Paris Rutherford. “Fundamentally, we’re interested in creating a waterfront district. . . . This is a unique site. That’s why we’re here.”
Waco City Council voiced enthusiasm for the vision and allowed city staff to proceed with bringing back a memorandum of understanding Dec. 15 to negotiate a deal with Catalyst in early 2016.
Prime waterfront land
Dallas-based Catalyst was the finalist among three firms that competed earlier this year to become the master developer of the city’s prime waterfront land, which lies within walking distance of Baylor, McLane Stadium and the heart of downtown. City staffers also interviewed the other interested firms, RealTex of Austin and Sorrells and Co. of Waco.
Rutherford said his firm believes in creating “great places” that are unique to their geography and community, not “cookie-cutter” developments. Catalyst plans to invest heavily in “streetscape” and recreational spaces, possibly including bocce ball courts, putt-putt golf and a splash pad. It would even remodel the old fire training tower on the riverfront site to add to the ambiance.
Catalyst’s plan would build on the success of the farmers market, which already draws large crowds and dozens of vendors to the site’s oak grove each week.
“For us, it’s almost a requirement to do the deal,” Rutherford said. “It’s very important for the farmers market to continue to be there. It brings an identity and a brand and interest. We want to build on this.”
That came as welcome news to farmers market manager Kristi Pereira, who attended the council work session and talked to Rutherford afterward.
“The fact that he said that (the farmers market) was actually a requirement of their plan was very reassuring,” Pereira said. “Waco is unique, and the farmers market is a part of that.”
Rutherford said the first phase of the project, to be built between 2016 and 2018, would create an 11,000-square-foot restaurant, 157 residential units and a 421-space parking garage. An overlapping phase would create 18,000 square feet of mixed-use buildings and attractions along the public promenade by late 2019.
In the years after that would come more restaurants, fitness centers, live-work units and park improvements on both sides of University Parks Drive.
Rutherford’s slides showed that the hotel would be built along Interstate 35 in 2020 or afterward, but he said the excitement around downtown and McLane Stadium could make that a project for the near term.
Rutherford said he envisions a ripple effect around the riverfront development that would extend into historic downtown. His slides showed similar development next door on the former Brazos Place condominiums, owned by Rick Sheldon and Joe Beard. They assembled the land as part of their bid to develop the city’s riverfront in 2013 but later withdrew from negotiations with the city.
Assuming the city council approves the agreement with Catalyst later this month, the firm will have 120 days to do site investigation and market studies, refine its master plan and negotiate an agreement with the city of Waco.
In that time, the city would draw up a long-term land lease and offer incentives for the development.
No estimates have been made of city incentives or of the developer’s total investment. Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said in an interview that he expects the city to contribute to the public spaces and amenities and to help build utilities and roads.
Duncan and Councilman Dillon Meek visited several Catalyst projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, including a mixed-use development in Addison that started 20 years ago.
“What impressed me was that the vibrancy is still there,” Duncan told the council.
Also impressed was Willard Still, past president of the Business Resource Center, which acts as Waco’s downtown development corporation.
“I like what I saw,” Still said. “The whole team seems to be occupied with attention to detail and creating a destination and ambiance.”
Still said the time is ripe to develop the riverfront on the heels of the construction of McLane Stadium across the river.
“The stadium, in my opinion, changed the game in Waco,” he said. “It proved to everybody that we can do things.”