Nearly two years after the closure of Highland Mall, nearby residents are seeing their vision for the Airport Boulevard corridor begin to take shape.

“Highland, in some ways, was like the last affordable Central Austin neighborhood,” said Nick Pellicciotto, president of the Highland Neighborhood Association.  Highland and Brentwood residents got together in 2004 to form a neighborhood plan which called for a Neighborhood Urban Center—a commercially dense, mixed-use development—at various Airport Boulevard intersections and at Highland Mall.

Highland and Brentwood residents got together in 2004 to form a neighborhood plan which called for a Neighborhood Urban Center—a commercially dense, mixed-use development—at various Airport Boulevard intersections and at Highland Mall.

Home prices in the Highland area have jumped 78.2 percent in the past five years, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors. The current median price sits at $320,000, compared to the $355,000 average Austin home. ABoR President Brandy Guthrie attributes the price increase to the redevelopment of Highland Mall into an Austin Community College campus, new mixed-use developments, access to multiple modes of transportation and the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown.

“Our neighborhood association, and almost everybody I know in the neighborhood, is pro-development,” Pellicciotto said.

‘Do something about Highland Mall’

RedLeaf Properties Principal Matt Whelan remembers when the former Highland Mall was booming.

“It was a source of vitality, a source of pride, a source of activity,” the Austin native said.

But competition from Lakeline Mall, Barton Creek Mall and the Domain slowly caused Highland Mall—and its neighboring retail and dining establishments—to fail, he said.

“As much as 15 years ago or more, people were coming to the city, to elected officials, and saying, ‘Can you please do something about Highland Mall?’ Whelan said.

In 2009, Whelan formed RedLeaf Properties and partnered with ACC to help make the residents’ vision a reality.

Timeline: Highland area through the decades

What’s new

RedLeaf’s first mixed-use development, featuring about 300 residential units, a parking garage and about 5,000 square feet of retail and dining, will open this spring next to ACC Highland. A new park is slated to be completed by summer, with walking trails and a community garden.

While the development isn’t catering specifically to the ACC community, Whelan said he and the college system hope students, faculty and staff spend time there in some capacity.

“We want [the development] to be accessible and attractive, and we’re trying to serve the broader Austin [area],” he said.

Surrounding shopping centers such as The Linc—formerly called Lincoln Village—and The Crescent—previously Highland Village—are also seeing growth, with restaurants such as Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden opening in June and grocery stores such as 99 Ranch Market opening later this year.

Meanwhile, ACC Highland continues its expansion adding a new bioscience incubator, new art studio and classroom space, new faculty offices and a regional workforce innovation complex that includes a STEM simulator lab, a culinary arts and hospitality center, a student-run restaurant, a digital creative media center, a performing arts center and a professional business incubator in the next three years.

Highland Cost Hike Home prices in the Highland area have jumped significantly from 2012 to 2016 but still fall under
the median Austin home price of $355,000.
The current median price of highland sits at $320,000.
Here's how the cost of housing has increased in the surrounding neighborhoods.[/caption]

Rackspace, affordable housing

ACC said it is moving forward with designs and construction of Highland campus improvements without Rackspace, a technology company that was slated to move into one of the Highland mall buildings.

“I think it’s becoming clear [Rackspace’s] new ownership is revisiting their strategic vision for things,” ACC’s executive vice president of finance and administration Neil Vickers said, referring to Rackspace’s sale to a private investor last year. “The college is not willing to wait for them.”

Rackspace was acquired in 2016 by investment management company Apollo Funds, but the change of ownership “has not changed our position on the importance of having a presence in Austin,” Rackspace spokesperson Monica Jacob said.

A little further south, plans are in place to transform a Travis County-owned property into affordable housing. Travis County commissioners voted Jan. 31 to support the request for tax credits in connection with the county’s plans to build about 150 affordable housing units, a 350-car parking garage and office space at its North Campus property, which spans Airport Boulevard from 5325-5335 Airport. The project is set to break ground in the first quarter of 2018.

Austin City Council may also move several city departments into a RedLeaf-owned building at the intersection of Middle Fiskville Road and Highland Mall Boulevard. The city doesn’t have any more room for its employees at One Texas Center—a city-owned building on Barton Springs Road—according to Greg Canally with the city finance department. The new space would open in about two years, Canally said. A total cost estimate has not been released.

Corridor improvements

Between 2011 and 2014, the city collected public input and created a form-based code focusing on future land-use development to achieve the community’s vision for the area, according to CodeNEXT Project Manager Jorge Rousselin. The so-called Airport Boulevard Form-Based Code Initiative will be used to inform the mapping functions of CodeNEXT—the city’s proposed new land development code—when the this April.

Separately, a 2014 transportation corridor study looked at short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for improving Airport Boulevard.

The study found more intersection improvements, drainage and stormwater improvements, and pedestrian and bicycle improvements were needed.

Airport Boulevard improvements were also included in the 2016 voter-approved $720 million mobility bond. At Austin City Council’s Feb. 28 meeting, city staff is expected to discuss the prioritization process for implementing the bond in the next eight years as well as present a clearer idea of what road projects would be funded in Year 1.

The Highland Capital Metro rail station is also slated to move a few hundred feet closer to ACC Highland, but Capital Metro Communications Specialist Mariette Hummel said the relocation has been put on hold for now, because funding has not yet been identified.

Pellicciotto said although growth in the corridor has benefited of the neighborhood, he worries about the capacity and viability of the new development.

“I don’t think it’s a fait accompli that Austin’s growth is going to be limitless,” he said. “The assumption is that as Highland Mall continues to get redeveloped, those [surrounding] properties will become more valuable, and we’ll have higher traffic.”