By Megan Rule | Staff Writer
Waco Walks, a group that meets monthly for a book club and then a walk, is making its way through downtown, hoping to turn Waco into a walking community.
“It turns out there are people in Waco for a long time who have been trying to make Waco more walkable and have cared about sidewalks,” said Ashley Bean Thornton, director for informed engagement at Baylor, member of Waco Walks and director of Act Locally Waco.”So there were quite a few people who were interested in the notion of walking and, within that, people who were interested in different things. Some people were interested in it for more exercise, some people were into the point of view of neighborhood development and some people were into it because they just can’t afford a car. Another aspect of it is people who were interested in it from the point of view of it being good community development and, in particular, downtown development.”
Waco Walks started when Thornton picked up the book “Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time” by Jeff Speck and gathered a group together for a book discussion. Through the book club meeting, people decided they wanted to continue to get together once a month and walk through various parts of Waco in an effort to turn the community into a community that walks.
“What I have observed is from Pat Neff to Whataburger is certainly no further from Pat Neff to the Student Life Center (SLC),” Thornton said. “And it would never occur to me to get in my car and drive to the SLC, but people get in their car and drive to Whataburger all the time. I think it’s because the walk, while it’s not especially long, is not inviting.”
Thornton emphasized the importance of connectivity throughout the city; Waco is beautiful, and there are so many cool things to see through walking around, but with patchy sidewalks and having to zig-zag across the street, walking doesn’t seem so inviting, Thornton said. On Feb. 25, Baylor Continuing Education held a class called Waco 101: How to Grow a Downtown, in order to teach about downtown development, with connectivity being a focus.
“We talked about a lot of our work to continue to bring people downtown and some of the things people have done to improve our tax increment financing and public improvement district,” said Dale Fisseler, city manager for the city of Waco. “We had a developer here, Shane Turner, who took us on a walking tour and showed the challenges and how the city could help with that.”
Fisseler said as the city begins various downtown improvement projects, it is trying to renew the amenities around the new areas. This includes extending sidewalks not just around buildings, but also connecting sidewalks to each other and renewing water and sewer lines.
“Hopefully, I think what we can do is first of all make other people in town aware that walking is something on people’s mind,” Thornton said. “The city people need to hear from us what we want, so I do think it’s important to have a group of people advocating for what they want, which is more sidewalks here in town.”
Clint Peters, planning director for the planning services for the city of Waco, also emphasized the importance of connecting Waco as a whole, in particular connecting Baylor to downtown Waco through the underpass of Interstate 35. Peters joined Thornton and Waco Walks for a walk to educate them on the possibilities of making Waco a more walker-friendly city. Through the recent funding for I-35 to be re-done through downtown, the city is looking at connections to improve the underpass for pedestrians, Peters said. There will be public meetings over the next two weeks to discuss how to improve pedestrian and bicyclist facilities.
“There’s them and another group that is similar with the bicycle planning and advocacy that we’ve been working with,” Peters said. “We’re about to start active transportation process looking at other forms of transit and creating a plan for not only downtown Waco but all of Waco to improve all forms of transportation. Both those groups have been so important in starting that process, and I expect them to play a big role in the process as we continue to expand the sidewalk network.”
Anyone interested in offering input is encouraged to come to these public meetings or share their ideas with City Council on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Thornton also welcomes anyone who wants to walk to check out the Waco Walks Facebook page and sign up for the next book discussion and walk, which will be Saturday.
“Downtown historically fell out of favor, but nationwide they’re coming back,” Fisseler said. “So we want to make sure we do downtown Waco right.”