Completed in 1970, the Austin Avenue Pedestrian Mall opened to high expectations. The City of Waco created the pedestrian mall in an effort to bring consumers back to the downtown district, closing down the street to automobiles and only allowing foot traffic. The Austin Avenue Pedestrian Mall featured walkways connecting many stores in one central location.
After a 1953 tornado wiped out much of the city's downtown commercial life, Waco's Downtown Merchants Association proposed the creation of a pedestrian mall to lure Wacoans back into the traditional commercial district and away from the suburban shopping centers. In 1958, the City of Waco became one of thousands of cities to participate in the nationwide urban renewal program. Urban Renewal efforts in Waco aimed to clear blighted areas around the city including homes, buildings, and city streets, forcing many citizens and businesses to relocate.
The downtown district was one of the areas chosen for Urban Renewal in 1968. According to a city planning report from 1966, the attitude of downtown merchants had been one of discouragement, with clerks uninterested in making sales and large numbers of panhandlers downtown. The Urban Renewal Agency of Waco aimed to remedy this situation, and began efforts to restore downtown Waco through was became known as the Brazos Project.
The Austin Avenue Pedestrian Mall was to be the central feature in the Brazos Urban Renewal district, which would cover 155 acres from 12th Street to the river, between Washington and Franklin avenues. The project awarded to Young Brothers Inc. in December 1969 and cost upwards of $850,000. When the mall was formally dedicated in January 1971, cars were banned from the area of Fifth to Ninth streets until the Waco City Council voted in February 1979 to reopen the Austin Avenue to vehicle traffic going one-way.
Though the construction of the mall heralded a brighter future for the downtown district to the citizens of Waco, they were ultimately disappointed, and the Pedestrian mall proved a failure.
The reasons for the decline of the mall are numerous. For instance, customers could only enter the walkway of the mall by parking their vehicles outside and walking in through the back of a store. Parking for the mall was supposed to be "available, convenient and free," but those plans were never formulated. Inclement weather also proved to be a major issue since store awnings provided little cover from rain, and the hot days of Central Texas summers made the concrete structure unbearable for people to visit.
By 1984, few pedestrians walked the closed-off streets, and even fewer made purchases. The perception of downtown business in Waco was so poor that a Waco Tribune-Herald article sarcastically noted that the debate about reopening Austin Avenue to traffic drew more attention to the mall and downtown Waco than it had received in years, and that the “pigeons have had no trouble keeping the right-of-way.”
In a nation where city planners attempted to renew the modern landscape, the Austin Avenue Mall was not the only pedestrian mall to fail. City planners throughout the country wanted all centers of government, businesses, and social life to be located in a single strong operating area. They believed the pedestrian malls would attract customers to downtown, and these customers would then make use of other services in the area while visiting retailers. The planners failed to realize that the automobile was changing the way people commuted, shopped, and went about most daily routines. Citizens were able to move farther away from city centers, and many retailers themselves moved to the suburbs as well. The late 1960s and 70s saw numerous new strip malls and businesses relocate to the residential neighborhoods across Waco and across the nation.
The Austin Avenue Pedestrian Mall fell victim to this poor climate for downtown city life. Though city officials hoped the mall would reinvigorate downtown, it merely sped its decline. Only the most resilient merchants remained downtown following the reopening of Austin Avenue to traffic. Today, Waco’s city planners strive to revive downtown life, especially along Austin Avenue, through the preservation of historic buildings, bringing in more merchants and businesses, and bringing back the traditional pedestrian experience of downtown.