Downtown Waco is on the right path

By Ryan Griffith | Reporter

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the direction downtown Waco is heading. New businesses like Magnolia Market and restaurants like Stone Hearth Indian Cafe are popping up regularly, developers are converting disused warehouses into loft spaces and the local government is pouring money into infrastructure projects focused on downtown development. This is a good thing.

For decades, cities in Texas have found themselves on two divergent paths. These cities focus on catering to suburbanites while neglecting city centers. They offer no incentives to local businesses and encourage massive chain retailers to move in and set up shop. It has not worked out well for them. You can recognize these places by the rows of vacant storefronts and abandoned houses, the crumbling movie theaters and the massive Walmart a few miles outside of town. Unfortunately, this has been the fate of more than a few Texas municipalities, like Port Arthur and the once-booming railroad burg of Texarkana.

On the other hand, cities that invest in their urban cores, support local businesses and are willing to zone for a variety of housing options are booming. Look no further than Fredericksburg, or even larger cities like Seattle for proof of this model’s success. Local businesses keep money in the community and create better-paying jobs for residents. A choice in housing options provides an incentive for notoriously suburb-phobic millennials to come and set down roots.

Much of the opposition has been targeted at high-end, touristy retail outlets like Magnolia Market. Detractors say that places like these create traffic problems and inconvenience the people who live and work nearby. It’s a fair complaint, but I would argue that the benefits of establishments like this outweigh the negative. Magnolia Market, in particular, attracts tourists from all over the country – all over the world, really. These people stay in local hotels, spend their money at local restaurants, and tell their friends back home how much they loved Waco. It’s not only an economic boom for the community, but also great press for a town that has suffered unjustly from the fallout of Baylor’s shameful football scandal.

“Gentrification” is a loaded word. While it’s true that retail property values in certain parts of downtown Waco have risen in past years, it’s important to remember that this area was never particularly residential. Building multi-family apartments downtown increases the housing supply, which can actually lower the price of individual units. Additionally, creating a mixed-use downtown allows lower-income residents greater access to Waco’s public transit system, which makes commuting to places like work and the grocery store easier. A dense city center increases walkability, improving traffic conditions and air quality. It’s good for everyone.

Change can be difficult, and Waco’s recent retail boom and downtown restructuring is no exception. But by continuing to create a mixed-use downtown district with a focus on walkability, residential density and local business, Waco is choosing the right path.