Five years ago, Austin Avenue was a nearly deserted street with only four businesses occupying five blocks. Empty buildings lined the street. Locked doors and boarded-up windows kept visitors away. No one could call downtown home or even wanted to say it was their neighborhood. No one wanted to.
Fast forward to today, and 15,000 employees, plus Baylor University students, occupy greater downtown during the day and restaurants keep the night owls entertained. Shops fill the once vacant buildings, new lofts build a skyline, and major businesses hve brought more visitors in each day.
Paul Hagan is a young professional living and breathing downtown life.
As a recent college graduate and businesssmen, living in greater downtown has been an exceptional two years.
Hagan is the project manager for The Dwyer Group, a Fortune 500 company. He conveniently works along the Brazos River just minutes from his Behrens loft.
His office is swanky and modern, exactly what you would expect from a young professional. His gadgets are placed on his desk near his eco-friendly Nalgene water bottle. Paul walks around all day in his Converse sneakers and shoots baskets at the net mounted on his wall while brainstorming. He is your typical bachelor embracing the downtown lifestyle.
Hagan moved downtown two years ago. His old apartment was run-down and no longer met his needs.
“My old apartment was dangerous and I witnessed crimes every week,” Hagan said. “There hasn’t been anything remotely unsafe since being in my new loft.”
He moved downtown not only for safety, but also for what downtown Waco had to offer. Loft living intrigued him and was unlike anywhere else he had lived before.
Greater downtown offers room for new adventures. Saturday mornings Waco residents can buy fresh produce at the Farmers Market and get lunch at one of the many new restaurants. Hagan appreciates the variety of food options and the convenience of their locations. Ninfa’s Mexican Restaurant, Crickets Grill, Diamond Backs Steakhouse and Gratziano’s Restaurant are all lined up in one block. The new Jimmy John’s is in walking distance from his loft.
“The restaurants here get a lot of my money,” Hagan said.
Another restaurant addition to greater downtown is the Klassy Glass. Serving as a more sophisticated bistro, Klassy Glass creates an environment where people can interact casually and enjoy their evenings spent with friends.
Owners Bob Ficke and his wife, Valerie, opened the Klassy Glass shortly over a year ago. They were searching for a location that would draw in customers and was also affordable. They found both on Austin Avenue.
The Fickes attended several community meetings. There they heard discussion of the plans for Waco and what was to come for the old business district. Valerie looked at the property and recognized it immediately. “I saw it and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is where I used to buy my shoes!'” said Valerie. “I fell in love with the property.”
Chris McGowan, director of urban development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, has played a large role in the greater downtown plan that the Fickes found attractive.
The Chamber’s job is to develop and grow the urban downtown area. The master plan, Imagine Waco, is designed for the next 40 years and focuses on establishing an area that expands into the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. The Chamber plans to grow the residential, commercial, retail and restaurant businesses in the area.
“We want this to be a vibrant, mixed-use, walkable community,” McGownan said. There is a distinct community occupying downtown Monday through Friday it is a neighborhood of hard-working, white collar types, and on the weekend it is a group of active young adults.
“Half of my building is Baylor graduate students and the other half is young professionals,” Hagan said. “There is a certain point in your life when you can appreciate living in a loft.”
Lofts and businesses have benefited from each other in adding more people to the community. Bringing people to downtown has and will continue to impact retail. in the past three years, downtown has added 750 full-time workers and residents through businesses and residential areas.
New restaurants like Sam’s on the Square and Metro offer these young professionals places to meet with friends on the weekends. Each one targets its particular crowd. Hagan’s personal favorite is Thursday night’s Piano Man down at Treff’s Grill, also in walking distance from his loft.
“The night life is loud for Waco and quiet for any other city,” Hagan said. “It’s a good thing I’m not a light sleeper.”
Klassy Glass also features music Saturday nights to provide downtown-goers with entertainment and draw others into the area. “We want to give people a reason to come downtown,” Valerie said.
And they do. The Klassy Glass is full Fridays with those just getting off work and looking for places to relax. Grad students fill the restaurant in search of a place to escape their routine of exams and thesis papers.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a community in Waco that lends itself nicely to the development of an urban residential strategy,” McGowan said.
“In Waco and elsewhere, baby boomers are leaving their large homes in suburbia to flock to newly developed lofts. Young professionals and students are in search of a place to live that is just the right size and in an area that offers activity.
McGowan says there is huge demand for living downtown. Currently, the lofts and businesses are fully occupied.
Creating more living space is at the top of the Chamber’s to-do list.
“We have way too many parking lots,” McGowan said. “We want to build new buildings and create value for our city.”
The two largest activity centers in McLennan County are greater downtown and Baylor.
“There is a visible difference,” Hagan said. “There is more activity downtown now than when I moved here two years ago.”
There is even more growth to come. Imagine Waco expects 150,000 people to being moving into McLennan County within the next 40 years. The Chamber wants to see more than half of them downtown.
“People go to cool places, and we’re trying to make Waco that cool place to keep people and students here and to make this city their home,” McGowan said “Downtown is everybody’s neighborhood. Everybody loves to be downtown when they can, and all we have to do is give them a reason to come.”
The U.S. economy slowed the rapid development that many had hoped for, but the area is still booming. Eager downtowners are taking CrossFit classes and grabbing a bite to eat after, all within a few blocks. Families are spending a day by the Brazos, shopping at the Farmers Market and in boutiques. What was once a sleepy town continues to grow.