Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Reviving a Dying Mall in Austin

Dateline: 11:40 am November 2, 2011 Filed under:

Much has been speculated about the death of the mall and what to do about it, and solutions vary. One very innovative re-use of an aging, enclosed mall can be found in Austin, Texas, where a local community college is taking over the space, and a developer partner is proposing to develop a mix of housing, office and retail on surrounding surface parking lots.

The project is part of a greater planning effort to redevelop a stretch of Airport Boulevard, a mid-20th Century urban highway. In many ways the former Highland Mall is the signature project for the corridor. A partnership between Austin Community College and Red Leaf Properties will redevelop the 80 acre site. The footprint of the 1.2 million square foot mall will not change appreciably, but the former anchor department stores will become administrative offices and classroom space for ACC. Red Leaf Properties will develop 2 million square feet of residential, retail, office and hotel uses on 40 acres of surface parking lots.

Included in the plan is a strong pedestrian connection to the Highland station stop of Capitol Metro’s new passenger rail line in Austin. As well, the plan for the Highland Mall site, as for the entire Airport Boulevard, is for a form-based code to drive the approvals process and zoning. The form-based code will dictate building height, density and design, as well as streetscape, providing the developer with more certainty for their project and others along the corridor.

Despite good public reception and the form-based code, the plan for the Highland Mall redevelopment is complex. The mall must be purchased from multiple entities, including a rare partnership between Simon Properties and General Growth that owns the buildings, and AIG, which owns the land. Cross-easements exist and utilities run below the site. Furthermore, complex financing agreements must be hammered out for development to occur.

Overall, the site offers an excellent location for the Austin Community College to establish a headquarters campus, and for a mix of uses to be added to a major and transit-served corridor in the city. The redevelopment of the Highland Mall should provide a critical anchor for the revitalization of the Airport Boulevard Corridor.

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