Having acquiring a declining shopping mall, Austin Community College now plans to redevelop the space into a diverse new urbanism community and learning center, according to The Austin Statesman:
The college completed its acquisition of the 80.8-acre Highland Mall in North Central Austin on Aug. 7 with the purchase of a ground lease that includes the core building with retail tenants, a former Dillard’s men’s store and the food court.
Now comes the task of planning a “new urbanism” development to replace Austin’s first regional mall, which has been in decline for years.
ACC’s concept plans call for a mix of college, commercial and residential uses in a fairly dense arrangement. Besides classrooms, a convocation center, parking garages and space for public-private partnerships, among other college uses, the plans envision multifamily residential units, retail shops and perhaps a hotel.
“I know of no other community college that has undertaken something like this,” Rhodes said in an interview last week at his office in ACC’s Highland Business Center, adjacent to the mall. “It’s exciting.”
ACC is expanding its regional footprint in other ways as well. A new campus is due to open in fall 2013 in Elgin, and one in Kyle is scheduled for a spring 2014 opening. Both are funded by bond proceeds.
Rhodes described the goal for the mall site as “a planned community similar to but on a smaller scale than Mueller,” the 700-acre new urbanism development northeast of downtown formerly home to Austin’s municipal airport. Like Mueller, Highland Mall is on Airport Boulevard, a major corridor for which revitalization is a priority for the City of Austin.
The commercial and residential development would be undertaken by RedLeaf Properties LLC, which has served as both middleman and partner in a series of transactions beginning in 2010 that led to ACC’s ownership of all of the land and buildings at the mall.
Except for last week’s transaction, Austin-based RedLeaf bought the parcels and sold them to the college.
Neil Vickers, ACC’s associate vice president of finance and budget, said the college purchased the final piece of the mall directly from LNR Property LLC, with RedLeaf helping to facilitate the transaction. All told, ACC’s acquisition of the mall has cost $43.1 million, including $2 million to buy the final piece and cover fees related to that transaction. The college used bonds and cash for the various purchases.
RedLeaf has retained options to buy up to 11 perimeter parcels for commercial development. Those parcels account for slightly more than half of the site.
The latest transaction clears the way for potential commercial development in the next 18 to 36 months, said Matt Whelan, RedLeaf’s principal. He said apartments are likely to be a major component of the first phase in light of high demand, with that sector’s occupancy rate at nearly 98 percent in Austin.
“We see a mixed-use environment that includes multifamily residential uses as well as retail, commercial office use and potentially hospitality or hotel use, in a pedestrian-oriented environment,” Whelan said. “Obviously all those things need to be planned and integrated with the college’s uses so they work together in the best extent possible.”
It seems pretty clear that the 50-some retail shops and kiosks remaining at Highland Mall might not have long there. Most are on month-to-month leases, and ACC officials said operations would continue through the winter holiday season. The mall had about 150 stores in 2006. These days, there are sometimes more employees than customers in the mall.
“The mall is very slow,” said Mir Thebo, a manager at Perfume Palace, which was devoid of customers when a reporter stopped in last week. He said he didn’t know what would happen when the shop’s lease expires at the end of the year.
The mall’s location offers many advantages, including close access to major roads, extensive parking and a MetroRail stop just across Airport Boulevard.
“The new vision for Highland Mall is a win-win, creating benefits for the college, local businesses, the city and our residents,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in a statement.
“This project showcases the best of public-private partnerships and will no doubt serve as a model for future development.”