Riverfront Development's Possible Derailment Wouldn't Be Waco's First

Sep 24, 2014

Plans to build a complex of apartments, shops and entertainment venues on the riverfront downtown have been temporarily derailed. It’s the latest development in Waco’s decades-long attempt to revitalize the riverfront between I-35 and the train tracks downtown. 

Last summer a development group called the Brazos River Partnership released a video with their plans to build on 22 acres of land next to the river in downtown Waco. Set to dramatic music, the video flies over a transformed riverfront with bustling restaurants, shops, offices, and park space.

But now the project’s been put on hold. Cost estimates for the development had doubled from $150 million to $300 million. And the Brazos River Partnership says some investors that were committed to the project are seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Mike Anderson is a representative of the Brazos River Partnership. He says part of the problem was restrictions on how the land could be used.

"There is some belief that you can’t put restaurants on public land," Anderson said. "The city had 13 acres of public park land that was part of the RFP, we had a condo tower on it, we didn’t realize that was a portion of it. And we also had the seven restaurants. The condo tower had to be relocated. And also the seven restaurants, which was a big part of the overall project, still have some questions that we’re working through."

Anderson says the partnership is still working on the project. But the city has said they’ll reissue a request for proposals at the beginning of the year if the developers haven’t secured funding.

If the plans do fall through, it won’t be the first time a developer has backed out of a major project along the riverfront.

In mid-1980's the city worked with a developer from La Jolla, California to develop pretty much the same area. The project would have cost $100 million and would have included a luxury hotel, office space, shops, restaurants, and a movie theater. But it never got built because a couple things happened to the Texas economy: oil prices plunged, crippling a lot of financiers, and the savings and loans crisis hit.

John Hatchel, he used to be the deputy city manager for Waco in the mid-eighties, now a board member at TSTC. "The economy dropped tremendously, interest rates went up, the financing was just not feasible at that time," Hatchel said.

After the bottom fell out of the economy, the La Jolla group moved on. Waco still has a vestige of that project: the river walk that extends from I-35 to Indian Spring Park The La Jolla group had agreed to build the river walk in exchange for tax incentives on the development… which, of course, never happened.

Bill Falco is a recently retired planner with the city. He says when the city started requesting proposals for new development along the river, their requests were pretty similar to the ones from the Eighties.

"We went back and looked at the old one and sort of did a little retread on it I mean we changed it some, but we used the basic outline back in the Eighties that we did for this RFP," Falco said. "Really what we wanted was basically was what we wanted back then—mixed use development with a combination of retail, hotel, office, condos and that’s what they gave us. And that’s what we kinda wanted again. In some ways things hadn’t changed."

But some things did look pretty different in the 80’s. The river was full of debris; the city had just failed an attempt at a bond election to construct a stadium along the river. Chris McGowan with the greater Waco chamber of commerce says there was little interest in what was going on downtown.

"Maybe the low point in the history of Waco as it relates to downtown and perhaps the river was sometime back in the early Eighties maybe there was a city council person in Waco who publicly declared Downtown Waco 'brain-dead.' It probably doesn’t get much worse than that," Mcgowan said.

McGowan says that’s different now. The city passed its first bond election in 40 years in 2007. Baylor’s ponied up with a swanky new stadium. Businesses are popping up along Austin Avenue. He says these are sign of a community waiting for something to happen.

"All of this stuff kinda happened at the same time," McGowan said. "Meanwhile national trends are pointing towards reurbanization because baby boomers are becoming empty nesters and their children are entering into the workforce so you’re seeing more demand for urban residential product. Gas prices are going up and people are getting tired of driving. It’s really kinda the perfect storm of things kinda converging, right here for an interesting future."