The downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board approved about $8 million in public backing for projects aimed at turning Elm Avenue and downtown Waco into more welcoming places.

The board’s largest award recommendation of the day, $5.5 million for a Bridge Street “front porch” project, will fund conversion of a the street in East Waco into a repaved “festival street” with a plaza designed for special events. The board also recommended $200,000 to renovate an old building at 305 Elm Avenue to house a coffee shop and custom boot retailer. The board approved another $1.5 million for improvements needed to establish a railroad quiet zone from Peach Street to South 13th Street. The TIF Zone board uses a portion of tax revenue collected from central city properties to reinvest in the area, and the board recommends projects to the Waco City Council, which has final approval.

City Center Waco Director Megan Henderson, who presented the Bridge Street project, said the nonprofit overseeing the project is speeding the process along by working with two city employees, Jim Reed and Cody Patillo.

“This will allow us to keep ahead of developments on adjoining properties,” Henderson said.

Henderson said City Center Waco has hired Barsh Construction as a manager at risk and design firm RBDR to start designing the area, which will have shaded seating areas, public art and a public plaza. Henderson said the plaza will also include an outdoor stage for performances, though the final location of the stage in the plaza has not been decided.

“It will function as kind of a public plaza festival area sort of day-in, day-out,” Henderson said.

The area will also be designed to be closed to vehicle traffic during events.

“The whole area will open up and function like a big, connected plaza,” Henderson said.

Henderson said the the goal is to start work on the project quickly, to avoid conflicting with adjacent construction. An apartment complex in the 100 block of Bridge Street, the city’s Elm Avenue streetscape project, three hotels underway and the 305 Elm Ave. project all have to be considered. Henderson said the project will also involve moving a portion of Mann Street slightly to the south, so it lines up with the rest of the road.

“There’s going to be a lot more people, a lot more local traffic moving in and around this area than it has seen ever before,” Henderson said. “In order to accomplish efficient, smooth, noncongested movement, we need some of these streets to connect at a straight shot. Right now there’s not a single one between the river and the Quinn campus that goes from Tyler to Taylor in a straight line. You have to turn twice to cross what will be the busiest street in this system.”

Quiet zone

Traffic engineering manager Eric Gallt presented the quiet zone project, intended to allow the city to prohibit trains from blowing their horns while downtown, except in emergency situations.

The project will require the city to install railroad gates, concrete panels, and extended pedestrian crossings and barriers in the road at all points where a two-way street crosses the tracks from Peach Street to 13th Street. The project also requires additional signs and striping at the 10 crossings within its scope, and the city plans to convert part of Jackson Avenue, which parallels the tracks, to a one-way street to meet requirements for the quiet zone.

“We’re expecting a lot of activity in downtown, so all of these improvements are good improvements independent of establishing the quiet zone,” Gallt said.

The board also recommended $341,000 for the city’s Public Works Department to fund replacing a small section of fragmented sidewalk on Webster Avenue from Fourth Street to Fifth Street. The project will include lighting, trees and ramps that comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Back in East Waco, the board recommended $369,000 to City Center Waco to remove a large spread of concrete slabs currently covering a block off of Taylor Street. Henderson said City Center Waco bought the property with the intention of bringing in businesses, and it plans to remove the concrete and plant grass in its place to make the area easier to develop in the future.

“It’s a bunch of different pours, different levels and drives,” Henderson said. “A lot of this is where an engine rebuilding business was located.”

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