ACC, St. David’s spur growth in north Leander
With the development of Austin Community College’s San Gabriel campus and St. David’s Emergency Center in north Leander, city stakeholders expect other developments, such as apartment complexes and big-box stores, to also come to the region.

The area in Leander near Toll 183A and US 183 has experienced an upward trend in development in the past few years, which Economic Development Director Mark Willis said has been caused by a combination of factors, including increased population and the quality of Leander ISD schools.

“It’s hard to say there’s any one thing that is the driving force behind it, but with the hospital and ACC in that area around the train depot, it’s kind of kicking that [development] off,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more interest in that area than we’ve had in the past.”

Economic development in the north region of Leander is something city officials have been hoping for and planning for more than a decade, Willis said. The city’s long-term vision is to have a mixture of shops, office space, restaurants and entertainment options in that area around the Capital Metro Leander Station Park & Ride, he said.

ACC Board Chairman Victor Villarreal said economic growth was one reason why the community college planned to open in Leander.

“Of course we focus on education and access to education, but in our mission statement, we do see ourselves as a driver for economic impact,” he said. “And that’s part of the reason we make decisions to locate campuses in different areas throughout Central Texas—because we know that we’re a catalyst for subsequent economic development.”

Major projects
ACC broke ground on its $60 million campus, located on San Gabriel Parkway between Toll 183A and Mel Mathis Boulevard, on April 21. The campus is expected to open in summer 2018 with an initial enrollment capacity of 2,000 students, though Villarreal said ACC is eventually planning to accommodate more than 10,000 students at the Leander location. 

The vision for the campus has been in place for years. Villarreal said he wrote a report in 2006 noting the need for higher education in Leander when he served on Leander City Council. In 2010, the community college purchased the 100-acre property off of Hero Way for about $12 million.

Villarreal said the location was ideal for ACC. The property is adjacent to the Capital Metro Leander Station and is bordered by Toll 183A and US 183.

“The transportation options that are adjacent to that piece of property, I think [those] really convinced ACC’s administration to recommend that property to the board,” he said. “And really, it’s a great location. It’s got high visibility; it’s multimobile—there’s rail, there’s tollway, there’s freeway, boulevards, there’s a bike lane, there’s all sorts of different multimobile methods to reach the campus.”

David Huffstutler, president and CEO for St. David’s HealthCare, also said the location was the best fit for his organization. In May the hospital announced its plans to develop a freestanding emergency department by 2017 and future plans to open medical offices and a full-service hospital on San Gabriel between US 183 and Toll 183A.

Huffstutler said St. David’s conducts a demand analysis and needs assessment when determining the best placement for new facilities.

“That analysis indicated this location in Leander is becoming an aggregated center for commercial activity and growth, which creates a destination point for area residents, and that was a significant factor when we were looking at site selection,” he said. “Given these factors, this site was ideal for the development of an initial patient access point and future hospital.”

Willis said having the St. David’s facility will be a positive change for Leander, and he said the project will also encourage growth in the area by US 183 and Toll 183A. The closest hospital to Leander is the Cedar Park Regional Medical Center on Medical Parkway in Cedar Park, he said.

“I don’t think people realize what a game-changer having a major hospital built in town is going to be,” he said. “[St. David’s], ACC and the quality of our school system—those are three of the biggest things right now that will help drive growth going forward.”

Other Leander projects
When ACC campuses were constructed in other cities in Central Texas, such as Round Rock and Elgin, Villarreal said the projects spurred economic development in those regions. He said he hopes restaurants, office buildings and other stores will be encouraged to open near the Leander campus.

“We’re going to be attracting thousands of students every week, and they’ll change from semester to semester,” he said. “The flow of potential customers for surrounding business, I think that’s very attractive for businesses to locate near that area.”

The city has been planning for growth in this area for more than a decade. In 2005, the city and Williamson County created a 2,300-acre tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ, in the area around the Capital Metro train station. City leaders called it a transit-oriented development district, or TOD, and envisioned the area becoming a destination district with urban development, where visitors could easily walk among clusters of businesses, offices and restaurants.

Capital Metro is also planning on improving service options to meet an increased demand of customers. In June, Capital Metro held an open house in the city to discuss future options in Leander. Sam Sargent, the community involvement coordinator with Capital Metro, said ridership on the MetroExpress bus service has grown 40 percent since 2001, and the MetroRail Red Line Service has grown by 200 percent since its conception in 2010.

Sargent said Capital Metro has ordered four additional rail cars for the MetroRail line, which the transit authority hopes to bring online in 2017 to serve the growing population. He said Capital Metro will need to continue to plan for the explosive growth in Leander, especially in the TOD by the new ACC campus.

“In Leander, the development patterns have been favorable around the station,” he said. “The intent is to not just increase folks heading from Leander to downtown [Austin]—it’s folks living in the city coming up here to go to school at ACC, to work, to really take advantage of all the things Leander offers, both in terms of fun and employment. “

In May Leander residents approved an $18 million proposition for a recreation center, such as a YMCA. In a presentation before City Council in April, two locations under consideration were in or near the TOD—one at Toll 183A and Hero Way on ACC property and another next to the new Tom Glenn High School near the intersection of San Gabriel and Halsey Drive.

Residential growth
More residential options have been moving or planning to move into and around the TOD area in the past few years. Leander Crossing off Toll 183A, The Standard at Leander Station and the future development the Village at Leander Station off Hero Way are all within a few miles of the train stop. Senior housing options have increased in the area as well with Leander Station Senior Village and Skye Luxury Senior Living on Hero.

Other future residential options in the area have been considered before council.

In multiple City Council meetings in April and May, council members heard presentations to amend the zoning of a 151.2-acre tract of land southwest of San Gabriel and US 183. The project was zoned for single-family and multifamily use, and the owner requested to increase the residential density allowed within the property to add more multifamily units.

During the meeting in April, a handful of neighbors who live in the surrounding Oak Creek subdivision expressed concern that the multifamily project bordered single-family neighborhoods.  City Council voted to approve the rezoning, and Mayor Pro Tem Ron Abruzzese said the council is looking for those types of projects within the TOD.

“This is what we wanted with the TOD,” he said. “It’s within walking distance of MetroRail; that’s the point there.”

Neighboring the TOD on Ronald Reagan Boulevard, Cold Springs Marketplace opened in the summer. The mixed-use development is leasing to tenants and aims to have a variety of restaurants, retail and office space. The Pedernales Electric Cooperative is also considering building a new operations center on the southwest corner of Toll 183A and Old FM 2243.

Willis said the city expects additional mixed-use developments to come to the area. As more people move to Leander, he said the city will continue planning for a mixture of shops, office space, restaurants and entertainment options in order to meet the demand.

“Economic development—it’s almost becoming a sales tool, especially if you want higher-end jobs, which is what our targets are,” he said. “What features do you have around you? What is the quality of life? These are amenities you’ve got to have these days.”