DeAundria Daniels has worked in the beauty shop at the Jockey Club, 815 Elm Ave., for three years, a short stint in the historic shop’s 100-year legacy. But Daniels’ three years may have been some of the shop’s most difficult, as she took on a second job to make the ends meet and the long-time East Waco business braved construction around its Elm Avenue home.
This week, for the first time since early 2019, the street hindered by construction is completely open to traffic, after some $21 million in infrastructure investments in the area, with $12 million going to Elm itself.
The work stretches back to January 2019 when contractor Barsh Construction took on sidewalk, streetscape, drainage and accessibility improvements around the 700 block as a model block for the corridor. The first block was finished in November 2019 for $669,000 and crews moved on to the $2.37 million first phase of infrastructure improvements from January 2020 to November 2021, consisting of street, drainage and waterline improvements from Spring Street to Clifton Street and along Forrest Street.
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Elm Avenue phase two, which is coming to a close, was bid to Barsh Construction in November 2020 for a total of $6.58 million and a project timeline of 360 work days, or about a year and a half without accounting for weather days and delays. The scope of the second phase included everything in the public right of way from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Spring Street and infill of sidewalk and lights from Spring Street to Garrison Street, said Macallan Goaley, a city engineer.
Phase two of the project underwent eight change orders authorized by city council, adding about a year and $1.41 million to the project for a total of $7.99 million. The project’s cost increased by about 21%, just short of the state’s 25% cap. Some $2.48 million in federal funding from the Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside Program was used for phase two.
Overall, Barsh Construction’s work on Elm Avenue has included about $12 million in public infrastructure improvements since 2019, including a $1 million project in 2022 that constructed accessible sidewalks and pedestrian crossing improvements around J.H. Hines Elementary School.
Combined with a $5.6 million project at the Bridge Street Plaza and $3.3 million for Peach Street utility improvements, investments in East Waco infrastructure total almost $21 million in recent years.
Phase two included complete reconstructions of the street, underground utilities, sidewalks and street lights. Goaley said the extension of new features into previous projects, including Bridge Street, created a “homogenous corridor.”
The original scope also included mill and overlay of all side streets along the corridor, but as the project team determined the underlying road base was unsalvageable it opted for reconstruction, Goaley said. Mann, Nathaniel McCoy, Myrtle, Douglass C. Brown, Sherman, Peach, Preston and Turner streets were each shifted to reconstruction.
“Reconstruction opened the opportunity to improve street grades and drainage,” she said.
The project also planted 35 trees along the corridor, “and we anticipate to plant another 15 trees in the next month as we are wrapping up the project,” Goaley said. “These trees were not originally in the project scope, but were added based on feedback from citizens. The project team worked throughout the project to identify potential areas for trees and work with neighboring businesses … to utilize green spaces adjacent to the new sidewalk for the trees.”
The final change order authorized by the city council Aug. 1 included finishing touches to Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalk features on Sherman Street and at the Peach Street intersection. As the roadway opens for traffic it will undergo striping and a final punch list of repair items before the project is accepted as complete, Goaley said.
Jockey Club cosmetologist Daniels said she has already seen an increase in foot traffic along the corridor since she came back to work full-time a few months ago. She said the work has made it an inviting place to be and she can tell “they’re really on foot to see some things.”
Although the businesses that made it through the pandemic and troubling construction hold their heads high, as not all have been so lucky. Many still feel the sting of being closed off for so long as they look toward the corridor’s growth.
Brazos Event Center owner Lakeishea Sandoval said without any parking or a way to get to her building at the corner of Elm Avenue and Sherman Street, hosting events became nearly impossible. The construction closed the event center for a short period of time, she said.
Events, which cost $1,300 for a full day, are often booked a year in advance and several people decided to cancel their reservations when they realized the extent of the street work. Sandoval said it was difficult to come up with the money for refunds for events booked so far in advance with an already cramped revenue stream.
Sandoval looks forward to the future of the event center, which was opened by her grandfather. The street is more inviting, especially at night, and more picturesque and clean-looking, an important feature for event-throwers looking to grab photos outside the venue or at the nearby Waco Suspension Bridge, she said.
Blake DeMaria, who runs Tony DeMaria’s Bar-B-Que at 1000 Elm Ave., said having the pristine street open will give people a new outlook on what the corridor is like.
Construction has put a damper on not only current Elm Avenue business, but also possible economic development opportunities as no developer would invest time and money into a business that isn’t accessible, he said. The entire area near the Brazos River has had its visibility ruined by construction for years, hotel projects nearby have dragged on and people have avoided Elm Avenue due to road closures for so long that drive-up clients have been obsolete. To find the place someone really has to be looking for it, DeMaria said.
“I can’t not be excited,” DeMaria said.
Plus, the reconstruction complements recent remodels to his store, he said.
Jockey Club owner Iva Smith and her three-person staff agree. They are ready for more foot traffic and walk-in clients to enjoy their recent interior and exterior renovations, including a mural honoring the shop’s past barbers and beauticians.
Smith thanked the city of Waco for her shop’s allocation of We All Win grant funding meant to help businesses affected by lingering construction. The city program has approved $2.53 million in grants to dozens of businesses. Smith used the Jockey Club’s grant to stay afloat during hard times and to makeover the building’s wood-paneled walls.
“We’re slowly working on it,” Smith said. “It’s gradually getting better, but it was a big hit and it was terrible when all the front was closed because people wouldn’t take the time to come in. … There was so much construction and it couldn’t do anything but impact your business.”
The shop has a few vacancies Smith is looking to fill, and passersby have begun to trickle in with the more inviting streetscape.
“Now I’m at the stage where I’m kind of trying to work and regroup, finish the dream,” Smith said.