Officials say ACC Highland helps transform Airport Blvd.

Highland Mall—Central Texas' first shopping mall, built in 1971—is being repurposed as plans to transform it into a higher education hub and mixed-use development get underway.

Dr. Victor Villarreal, vice chairman of the board of trustees for Austin Community College, said Highland Mall is an important project for the college and the community. A bond program advisory committee recommended ACC Highland as the top priority in a list of 11 project needs for the college.

"As with [bond] items one through five, and obviously Highland, we committed to the community that we were going to make that one right—we have to get that project right—so obviously No. 1 is No. 1 for me as well," Villarreal said at an Aug. 5 board of trustees meeting.

A new hub for learning

Neil Vickers, ACC vice president of finance and budget, said Highland Mall's location fits the college's criteria for a new campus.

"The site is just really well-suited to meet our community-based mission because of its location and the accessibility," Vickers said. "And the fact of the matter is, it's significantly cheaper for us to renovate existing buildings than it is to build new and from the ground up. It's great. There's not a whole lot of places in Central Austin that you can pick up 80 acres of land with all the features and accessibility that Highland Mall brings."

Acquisition of the Highland property started in 2010 and cost a total of about $42.4 million. The college began considering expanding into the area in 2007 to help address capacity concerns. ACC officials said the campus is about 80 acres and the total building area acquired by ACC is about 1.2 million square feet.

Vickers said the mall has several features that made it an attractive option for ACC, including ample parking, flexible spaces and conduciveness to foot traffic.

"When you really sit down and look at it from a physical standpoint, there's actually a lot of similarities between mall space and the type of space you need for a community college campus," Vickers said.

JCPenney, the first phase

ACC is renovating the former JCPenney, turning the building into a space that includes labs, classrooms and the Math Emporium—an open lab learning space for students to learn mathematics curriculum at their own pace. The project broke ground March 27. Vickers said the first level will consist of the emporium and include a computer lab with about 600 computer stations dedicated to developmental courses designed to prepare students for college-level mathematics.

"That's going to allow us to really do some new and innovative things in developmental math," Vickers said.

The second floor of the building will have more traditional classrooms and lab rooms, Vickers said. Officials expect renovation to be finished in 2014.

Some areas of the mall, including the food court and some smaller shops, are still open.

The first phase budget is about $60 million, with an additional $10 million for infrastructure work around the building, including utilities and roadways. The college is using revenue bonds to pay for the JCPenney portion of the project.

Vickers said college officials do not yet have a solidified plan for the remaining buildings at ACC Highland. College officials are interested in hiring a master planner for the project and expect to finalize plans in 2014.

Private development

Matt Whelan, manager of RedLeaf Properties, which is the commercial developer working with ACC at Highland Mall, said the commercial development of the ACC Highland property could include mixed-use development, such as office space, retail, apartments and condominiums.

"From our perspective, having the college, first of all, they're very stable. They're not going to go away. [ACC is] going to be there. You can rely on that," Whelan said. "But then also [ACC] brings a new vitality to that area, with students and faculty and administrators. Those are people who could live in residential, who will certainly be shopping and eating at restaurants."

About 40 acres at the former Highalnd Mall site is dedicated to private development. Whelan said his part of the project is expected to take 10 to 20 years to complete with about 1,000 units of apartments and condos projected for the development.

Fitting in on Airport Boulevard

The city of Austin's Airport Boulevard Form-based Code Initiative includes ACC Highland in its goal to revitalize the aging corridor. The initiative aims to create a pedestrian-friendly environment with access to multiple types of transportation options and revitalized private developments while preserving the area's existing character.

Jorge Rousselin, an urban design project manager with the city of Austin's Planning and Development Review Department, said the city identified the Airport Boulevard area two years ago as one with potential to be rejuvenated.

"We started to engage the community in a series of meetings and workshops to come up with a collective vision to start thinking about how the area could evolve over time," Rousselin said. "We're looking at a 30-year-and-beyond transformation of Airport Boulevard."

The corridor—about 2.5 miles in length—has already seen some major changes and developments, including the Mueller development just east of I-35 and Crestview Station near Airport and Lamar boulevards. A proposed city code that solidifies the vision, rules and regulations for the area was submitted early June for the city's staff to review.

Rousselin said Highland Mall has always been one of the anchor commercial properties of Airport Boulevard and was thriving in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. He said the ACC Highland project will complement the goals of the overall vision for the corridor and fits well with the progress that has a been made.