By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator
Large planters made of brick and cement held trees and shrubs once sat in the middle of Austin Avenue to help add to the mall’s unique aesthetics.
Between 1958 and 1978, the Urban Renewal Agency of the City of Waco, along with the federal government, created a master plan to redevelop ten areas of the city between Waco Drive and LaSalle Avenue. By the late 1970’s, efforts by the agency had resulted in the demolition of 1,200 homes and 300 commercial structures. This multi-million dollar effort was to eliminate dilapidated buildings and improve the aesthetics of the city. Affected homeowners and businesses received aid to help improve their properties or were moved completely to more suitable and habitable conditions. Part of the greater plan was known as “Brazos Urban Renewal Area TEX R-104” and covered much of downtown and included what was to become the “Austin Avenue Mall.”
Play areas for children were part of the mall’s design as well as cement blocks for seating. Awnings returned on storefronts for pedestrian shelter completion, the mall was heralded as “the beginning of a new era for Downtown Waco.”
The mall’s construction extended from the Ninth to Third Streets blocks of Austin Avenue and closed this portion to vehicular traffic while leaving side streets open. This location allowed the mall to link up with the recently constructed Waco Convention Center. The original planners called for: “a pedestrian mall on Austin Avenue and outlined space for a convention hall on the old City Hall Square.” The Waco City Council had no objections and a federal grant was approved on October 31, 1968 for the project. Construction began in early 1970 and the Austin Avenue mall was formally dedicated on January 16, 1971. After completion, the mall was heralded as “the beginning of a new era for Downtown Waco.”
Details included removing tall curbs to make a seamless surface across the street for pedestrians to access storefronts lining the mall. Large awnings were built to keep “window shoppers” in the shade or sheltered from rain. Fountains, modern lighting, and cement blocks were used for seating and aesthetics. Large planters held trees and plants. The mall also used electric-powered “Free Shopper Trams” that were ahead of their time for the early 1970’s. The Austin Avenue mall got off to a hopeful start with retailers seeing increased sales. One merchant claimed: “Sales are definitely up. We’re getting more people from out of town and a lot of Waco people are coming back downtown to shop because of the inviting atmosphere.”
The mall used electric-powered, General Electric, “Free Shopper Trams,” that were ahead of their time for the early 1970’s.
However, the success of Austin Avenue’s transformation proved difficult to sustain as the years went by. As early as 1977, several key businesses moved to other locations throughout the city, diminishing the area’s desirability. These included some of the main attractions such as Goldstein-Miguel, Cox’s, Monnigs, and Bauer McCann. J.C. Penney was soon to follow when it moved to Richland Mall by the late 1970’s.
In May 1977, Jack Denman, president of Downtown Waco, INC., remarked to the Waco City Council, “There is no reason for anyone to be on the mall. It is the most beautiful, tranquil place in town but is functionally useless.” Further, Denman stated, “I receive calls from women who are scared, and have a paranoia about walking on the mall, they feel alone, isolated…”
After several more years of similar sentiments regarding the pedestrian mall project, in 1985, the Waco City Council decided to change it back to a two-way street between Third and Ninth making Austin Avenue fully accessible to vehicular traffic. The existing remnants that made the pedestrian mall unique, such as cement planters, ponds, fountains, and electric trams, were cleared. Indeed, the idea may have been ahead of its time but now makes for an interesting chapter of Waco’s past.
“20 Years Transform Heart of Our City” Waco Tribune Herald, September 3, 1978.
“Downtown Revitalization Underway; Main St. 2-Way.” The Waco Citizen, August 30, 1985.
“Office of Economic Development, Urban Renewal in Waco” (Waco, Texas), 1989; Subject File: Waco Urban Renewal. Thomas E. Turner Papers, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
“Parking on Mall Asked.” The Waco Citizen, May 20, 1977.
“Urban Renewal in 1968: An Annual Progress Review” The Waco News-Tribune, March 26, 1969.
“Urban Renewal in 1970: An Annual Progress Review” The Waco News-Tribune, March 24, 1971.
“Urban Renewal in 1971: An Annual Progress Review” The Waco News-Tribune, March 29, 1972.