Projects begin moving north

Nearly one year since Toll 183A expanded 5 miles north into Leander, development and infrastructure is starting to follow.

The tollway, operated with user funds by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, officially opened its second phase north of FM 1431 on April 6, 2012. The tollway in recent weeks has added exits at Hero Way and San Gabriel Parkway.

The expansion helps bring the area out of the Austin metropolitan fringe and into relevance among developers, Leander Urban Designer Pix Howell said. Interest is particularly high, he said, around Leander's transit-oriented development (TOD) district located between Toll 183A and the Capital Metro Park & Ride station.

"Whether suburban or TOD, the infrastructure had to be put in place before it really had the viability of [a traditional urban] project," Howell said. "You also need the rooftops to attract the commercial development."

With more than 12,000 homes—many near Toll 183A—in various stages of development in Leander alone, it is increasingly easier to incentivize motorists to travel that far north, Mobility Authority Director Mike Heiligenstein said.

"A lot of people seemed hesitant at first to bring up the tollway as an asset," Heiligenstein said. "Now developers and subdivisions both mention how close and convenient they are to [Toll] 183A."

Delayed development

After waiting seven years, land broker Dennis McDaniel is now realizing his vision for Scottsdale Crossing, a mixed-use project immediately east of the Block House Creek subdivision along Toll 183A.

The 160-acre development broke ground Jan. 22 and will eventually include retail, restaurants and homes in addition to seven large office spaces. The first 27,500-square-foot office building is expected to be constructed by May, creating space for a new company to relocate to Cedar Park, much to the delight of Phil Brewer, the city's economic development director.

Because of the lack of existing vacant large office space in the Austin area, Brewer insisted that McDaniel not wait to secure a business before developing the site.

"[Brewer] said he could have filled up 10 buildings," McDaniel said. "And we really believe in Phil. That's why we broke ground without a tenant."

The project allows Brewer to then market the building to multiple prospective businesses as well as companies seeking a large, short-term space while they build out a larger office building. The project is among more $300 million in commercial development to emerge since the tollway first opened in 2007, Brewer said.

Next in line

Scottsdale Crossing is among several long-anticipated projects being revived after years of stalling. Many attribute the delays to the Great Recession from 2007–09, but development along Toll 183A is starting to regain interest.

Crystal Falls Parkway, in particular, is the next northern tollway crossroad likely to attract significant development, said Rick Castleberry, land broker for Austin-based McAllister and Associates, who compared the area's growth potential to Plano's in the DFW Metroplex.

"Development money is back, so the game is on again," he said.

Castleberry oversees the southeast corner along Toll 183A, a future mixed-use development called Leander Village. He considered the intersection so vital that he paid the Mobility Authority $600,000 to relocate the Crystal Falls exit ramp 2,300 feet south so northbound traffic could safely merge to his corner of the intersection. The space is expected to include smaller mixed-use developments and a senior living village during the next three years.

The northeast corner of Crystal Falls Parkway and Toll 183A, on the other hand, is expected to feature a 15- to 20-acre big-box retail development, land broker Joe Duncan said. More residents are using rather than avoiding the tollway, he said, much in the same way Houston and Dallas area residents have come around to paying tolls.

"Those toll roads can be double-edged swords, but I am a very strong believer," Duncan said. "They've produced so much development."


Now that traffic has opened to Hero Way and San Gabriel Parkway—the two primary east-west thoroughfares within Leander's TOD—development is expected to soon follow, Howell said.

"Keep in mind, the TOD was basically void of internal infrastructure," Howell said, adding that north-south connector Mel Mathis Avenue will open this summer.

Lance Hughes of Hughes Capital Management said more details are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks about Leander Transit Village, a mixed-use development surrounding the train and bus station. Hughes helped by donating right of way that allowed Hero Way to be built.

Castleberry also oversees land surrounding the Austin Community College–owned property. He said the space would be ideal for a Leander-based primary employer.

The type of employer would likely depend on the area of expertise at the Leander ACC campus. ACC board trustee Victor Villarreal said he ideally envisions a biomedical or energy emphasis at the proposed campus, although that may change once the campus opens.

Villarreal, a former Leander councilman and the only non–Travis County ACC board trustee, was instrumental in helping to attract ACC to Leander in the mid-2000s, eventually leading the school to buy a 100-acre property in the heart of the city's TOD. The $12.4 million purchase was the college's most expensive land purchase to date, he said.

ACC timeline

Because Leander ISD has been part of ACC's taxing district since 1985—following 83 percent voter approval at the time—the proposed campus does not qualify for state financial support, Villarreal said.

"We're the fourth-largest city in the taxing district, but the strongest argument for a campus is the fact we have been in the district so long," he said. "We have paid our dues."

Steps are in motion that could potentially allow ACC to place a bond initiative on November's ballot. If approved, an undetermined amount of money would be allocated toward a Leander campus, which could break ground next summer and open for class by spring 2016.

Until then, the Leander ACC property has continued to accumulate value since being purchased in 2011. The property's assessed value increased nearly 19 percent last year, according to Williamson County Appraisal District data, a testament to ACC's vision statement to promote economic development, Villarreal said.

"That's one of the reasons why we develop—knowing we provide these communities another economic incentive," he said. "It's a manifestation of part of our mission."

Howell said ACC is among many components that help make the Leander land along Toll 183A particularly attractive.

"The biggest benefit of the TOD is that it's an alternative to everything else that's out there," he said. "We have people migrating here from other parts of the country that prefer a more urban lifestyle in a less expensive environment."