ACC campus sparks renewal around half-vacant Highland Mall

Aug 27, 2014
Austin American Statesman

The first phase of Austin Community College’s newest campus will have its grand opening Wednesday when the public will see the $60 million transformation of the mall’s old J.C. Penney department store. The opening marks the end of the first major construction since ACC, with the help of Austin-based RedLeaf Properties LLC, purchased the last of the mall property in 2012. The college paid $42.6 million for the entire property

Since then, businesses and the city have shown increased interest in the area: the city has already secured land for a new neighborhood park; a California company has purchased a neighboring strip mall with plans to revamp it; a cosmetology school has opened; and a tech business has moved into the former Dillard’s store area

While some want ACC to build out the rest of the mall as soon as possible, the redevelopment of the Highland area will take more than a decade and has already created some concerns among nearby residents. RedLeaf has options to purchase up to 11 perimeter parcels for mixed-use development, and the last of the projects aren’t expected to be completed until 10 to 15 years down the road. Residents are concerned about the traffic that construction could bring and about being priced out of their homes over time

“Our neighborhood plan is very strong on affordable housing. This is a neighborhood that has always been a place where people buy their first homes,” said Alex Schmitz, president of the Highland Neighborhood Association. “There’s a lot of fears, and they’re legitimate, but if it’s done right, this could be fantastic.”

The immediate hurdle for the college is convincing voters to approve its $386 million bond during the Nov. 4 election. About $152 million of the bond would go toward the second phase of repurposing the mall

If the bond fails, RedLeaf’s development of the surrounding area could slow down, said Matt Whelan, RedLeaf’s principal. The company intends to break ground late next year on its first mixed-use development that includes apartments

“It doesn’t change the vision for the project,” Whelan said about the bond. “But if ACC moves forward more quickly with their activities, that certainly helps the whole area to move forward and us included.”

Totaling 415,000 square feet, the second phase of construction connects the college to Rackspace, a San Antonio-based cloud computing company, which will lease from the ACC the former Dillard’s in the southern part of the mall. As a part of the public-private partnership, Rackspace will hire 100 interns from ACC every year. The company, which would pay to renovate its space, could open as early as late 2015

Second-phase projects that the bond would fund include a new culinary arts center, with a demonstration kitchen, pastry kitchen and a four-star, student-run restaurant; a creative media center, with course offerings in gaming, music technology and entrepreneurialism; a workforce innovation center for customized training; a lab that simulates a clinic for health care training; and a child care center

The first phase of the campus boasts soaring glass panels that flood natural light into the two-story structure. A football field’s length of more than 600 computer stations in the building make up the ACCelerator lab, where math students can work at their own pace or with a tutor. Biology and chemistry labs are equipped with amenities equivalent to those of four-year universities

Although there are plenty of examples of Texas colleges repurposing strip malls and commercial real estate for educational use, there hasn’t been one on the scale of ACC’s plans for Highland Mall

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