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Austin Avenue pedestrian mall at 50: The rise and fall of a failed solution

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Austin Ave mall

Fifty years ago, an Austin Avenue shopper could visit one of four major department stores, buy shoes or diamond rings or stop by her choice of banks and cafeterias. She might catch a first-run movie at the Waco Theatre, such as the hippie classic “Alice’s Restaurant.”

But as Waco’s retail main street, Austin Avenue’s star was fading fast.

Buildings were suffering from neglect or from tornado damage 16 years earlier. Many shops had failed to change with the times.

The lifeblood of Waco commerce was draining to shopping centers and malls on the western edge of town, with their vast parking lots and air-conditioned corridors. The remaining downtown department stores all had suburban locations, usually with a better selection.

The diagnosis for downtown was dire, but merchants, city officials and urban planning consultants had a strong prescription for it.

They would barricade the busiest section of Austin Avenue to vehicle traffic, plant live oak trees and build fountains in the middle and shade canopies on the side. They would provide hundreds of free parking spots nearby and a free tram powered by an electric tractor. They would beat the malls at their own game.

Austin Ave mall

A photo from Baylor’s Texas Collection shows the mall in its early, hopeful days.

Thus was born the Austin Avenue pedestrian mall. A centerpiece of the downtown Urban Renewal program, it went to bid in late 1969 and was completed by January 1971 to great hoopla and early reports of retail success.

It would not take long for merchants and the public to proclaim the verdict on this bold experiment: It was a flop.

“If you were to shout ‘fire’ on Waco’s downtown mall at about 3 p.m. on a weekday, you’d probably alarm more pigeons than people,” Dallas Morning News reporter Dave McNeely wrote in March 1974.

By 1977, 32 stores in the mall area between Fourth and Ninth streets had closed, along with the Waco Theatre, and 26 buildings sat vacant. J.C. Penney remained as the only department store on a mall dominated by thrift stores, beer dives, pawn shops and government welfare offices.

The mall reopened to limited one-way traffic in 1979 at the insistence of merchants, who would agree a few years later to help fund a major street renovation that brought back two-way traffic along with wide, tree-shaded sidewalks.

Austin Ave mall

The Austin Avenue pedestrian mall included playground sculptures and a canopy walkway.

Austin Ave

Austin Avenue today has two-way traffic and street trees.

Only in the past decade has Austin Avenue started to regain its vibrancy, this time as a center for leisure, with art galleries, restaurants, a renovated Waco Hippodrome entertainment complex and destinations built on music, craft beer, wine, candy and fancy coffee.

Of 39 storefronts in the old pedestrian mall zone, 34 ground-level spaces are occupied, two are under construction and four are empty. The comeback was well underway before the downtown boom brought on by the Magnolia Market at the Silos project four blocks away.

From the vantage point of half a century later, it is easy to dismiss the pedestrian mall as an ill-conceived civic fad that was doomed to fail. Some Wacoans still blame it for killing downtown as a whole, which one city councilman wrote off as “brain-dead” in 1988.

It is true that most of the 200 pedestrian malls built around the United States in that era failed, but defenders of the concept point to some that have succeeded as centers of civic pride and commerce.

In any case, Waco business and planning leaders in the era of the pedestrian mall tended to see it as a last stand against overwhelming odds.

Bill Falco, former city planning director, started working for the city in 1972 and helped oversee the conversion of the mall back to two-way traffic in the mid-1980s. He said the mall did not save downtown, but was not the cause of its decline.

“I really felt like it was not the fault of the mall,” Falco said. “Cities were spreading out, and that had been coming for some time. I felt like the mall has been seen as the culprit, when in fact it wasn’t the mall that did it.”

Austin Ave mall

Landscaping was an important part of the pedestrian mall that was constructed nearly 50 years ago.

David Lacy, a bank president who owns several properties along Austin Avenue, also supported the reintroduction of traffic to Austin Avenue in the 1980s. He said the pedestrian-only zone was a case of “traffic calming gone too far,” and its failure ingrained in him the importance of vehicular access and parking for downtown business.

“That experience is emblazoned on my mind,” Lacy said.

Still, he said the mall seemed like a viable option in the 1960s, when his father, Walter Lacy Jr., owned Citizens National Bank in the 500 block of Austin.

“The pedestrian mall was really a pretty well-thought-out, last-ditch effort to try to turn things around,” Lacy said. “Downtown was struggling when that decision was made. It was an attempt to make things better at a moment they were grasping at straws.”

Brian Ginsburg, owner of W Promotions at 906 Austin and buildings in the 800 block that house Hey Sugar Candy and Waco Ale Co., was a middle-schooler when the mall opened. His father, Jake Ginsburg, had moved his clothing store and pawn shop from the old square to the 800 block in the 1960s using federal Urban Renewal funds.

Austin Ave

Austin Avenue business owner Brian Ginsburg, shown with dog Charlie, said the pedestrian mall left the area desolate.

The elder Ginsburg was quoted in news articles at the time as seeing an uptick in business after the mall. But his son recalls that the pawn shop was an exception.

“There was nobody walking in on the mall,” he said. “It had just died. On a Saturday we’d literally be the only ones open down here.”

Austin Avenue remained the leading retail hub of Waco even after the devastation of the tornado in 1953, and its four lanes were the main drag for cruising teens on Saturday nights.

But its primacy was challenged in 1958, when Westview Village opened at Valley Mills and Waco drives, offering an air-conditioned walkway between stores, including Cox’s Department Store.

Three years later came Lake Air Mall, which offered even more enclosed space, with Montgomery Ward, Goldstein-Migel, Piccadilly Cafeteria and many other stores that had once been confined to downtown.

By comparison, downtown Waco seemed dowdy and congested, with its narrow sidewalks, tight parking and old-fashioned business habits.

Hank Corwin, a real estate agent who later became the director of Urban Renewal programs in the 1960s and ’70s, had noticed the stagnant business culture as far back as the 1950s.

Speaking in the early 1980s with Baylor oral history interviewers, he opined that by the time of the tornado a third of the businesses along Austin Avenue “had been out of business for five years and didn’t know it.”

“They were existing by eating into their inventory, and this went on for several years more,” Corwin said.

Austin Ave mall

A tram powered by an electric lawnmower ferried shoppers up and down the mall.

By the late 1960s, city leaders were ready for big solutions, and a leading American planning firm was ready to oblige.

The Harland Bartholomew & Associates firm of St. Louis had drawn up the city’s first comprehensive plan in 1958. It laid the groundwork for the network of one-way streets in downtown, as well as a massive slum clearance and relocation program funded by the federal Urban Renewal program.

The firm’s namesake founder had helped invent the profession of city planning and zoning, along with the federal highway system, comprehensive planning and modern traffic engineering.

In 1967, the firm returned with a new comprehensive plan with recommendations for downtown that were nothing short of radical.

The city was losing its downtown to suburban competition and needed to fight back, the planners said. The firm urged the city to buy most of the property between Mary and Jefferson avenues, all the way from Ninth Street to the Brazos River.

Much of what stood there would be razed for parking and new facilities. At its suggestion, the city worked with Urban Renewal officials to tear down the old square to make way for a new convention center.

The pedestrian mall, which had been suggested in the earlier plan, was depicted with a two-story arcade, partly air-conditioned. Hundreds of parking spaces should be created nearby, planners said, and traffic on Washington and Franklin avenues should be converted to two-way again to support Austin Avenue, which was sandwiched between.

“While the situation confronting the central area of Waco is desperate, it is not without hope,” the plan stated.

Austin Avenue Mall: The vision

A rendering from the 1967 Comprehensive Plan by the planning firm Harland Bartholomew & Associates depicts a vision of a redeveloped Austin Avenue at Sixth Street. The firm proposed a pedestrian mall with two-story arcades, but Waco officials selected a simpler design.

Harland Bartholomew estimated a $1.1 million project funded by the city and federal government, but in the end the project cost about $850,000, all from federal sources. The two-story arcades were shunned in favor of metal awnings.

The mall was part of an unprecedented era of public works, much of it focused downtown. Within a few years the city used federal dollars and a bond election to build a new police station, new fire training facility, the Franklin Avenue river bridge, University Parks Drive, the Texas Ranger Museum, the convention center and the low-water dam.

Despite some $80 million in federal dollars invested in the central city, the suburbs continued to suck the population and business out of Waco. When Richland Mall opened in 1980 with nearly 700,000 square feet of retail space, the prospect of a downtown comeback seemed bleak.

Austin Ave

Austin Avenue reopened in the mid-1980s with two-way traffic and traffic calming features, as well as street trees and benches.

The same market forces hollowed out downtowns across America, and pedestrian malls, dependent on heavy foot traffic, became empty and blighted. Kalamazoo, Michigan, which had started the pedestrian mall trend in 1958, reopened its mall in 1992. By some estimates, only 11% of pedestrian malls have survived, in cities such as Boulder, Colorado; Santa Monica, California; and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Some of the survivors have gained enough community support to warrant continued investment, including the four-block mall in the college town of Ithaca, New York, which got a $15.3 million renovation in 2013. The mall supports a sporting goods store, several restaurants, art galleries and a new 10-story Marriott Hotel. Gina Ford, a landscape architect who led the project, has advocated for the concept in certain urban climates, typically those with those with a large nearby college population or some anchoring attraction.

“To dismiss the model of the pedestrian mall is to misunderstand the factors that have characterized both its success and failure,” she wrote in a 2015 blog essay.

Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, does not see the concept working for downtown Waco, which today is a diverse mix of workplaces, loft-style apartments, food and arts and leisure activities. People need to feel free to explore downtown either on foot or by car, and navigating a pedestrian mall requires too much of a potential customer, she said.

“I think that downtowns are great in part because of accidents and unplanned experiences,” Henderson said. “When we think we’re going to improve something we’re usually trying to control what people encounter … to the exclusion of other encounters.”

Still, she said pedestrian malls were on the right track in creating inviting streetscapes with trees, shade and wide sidewalks.

Austin Ave

Brian Ginsburg and his dog, Charlie, in front of one of the Austin Avenue buildings he owns.

Ginsburg, the Austin Avenue property owner, said the current street design is the happy medium for the reinvented downtown, allowing traffic without letting it dominate street life.

“In the last 12 years, I think we’ve evolved in the right way,” Ginsburg said. “This is work-live-play area. There are shops, restaurants, things to do, places to live. Downtown is an experience, a place to walk around. You’re not going to have the same good time at Westview Village.”

 

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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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