Highland Mall nearly history Full-scale redevelopment project[/caption]

Contrary to popular belief, Highland Mall is still open—but not for long.

Austin's first regional indoor shopping center closes to consumers April 30 after 44 years to make room for Austin Community College's expanding Highland Campus, which debuted last fall in the former JCPenney building. The closure enables ACC to begin work on the campus's next phase, a $152.8 million makeover of the mall's central area approved by district voters last November.

Highland Mall has operated without an anchor tenant since 2011, the year before ACC finalized its property purchase of the dwindling shopping center, ACC President Richard Rhodes said.

"We're talking about something that had collapsed economically, and it was taking the surrounding community down with it," Rhodes said. "ACC wants to play a key role in turning around this part of the community that is blighted and give people hope so they will reinvest and help bring economic development back into this sector."

Less than a dozen retailers remain in the mall's final weeks. The shop's owners will move out in early May to allow ACC to clear the building of asbestos, Rhodes said. In June the ACC board will consider project design proposals from architects. There are typically three to five finalists selected, according to Rhodes.

"This project is precedent-setting nationally," Rhodes said. "We're catching the attention of educators across the country and even beyond the United States' borders."

Similar to Highland Mall, this new campus will have a regional draw, ACC board Chairman Vic Villarreal said.

"When you consider we have already invested a quarter of a billion dollars into the core of Austin, that should signal to the community our commitment," Villarreal said. "The payback over time to the community is going to be exponentially higher."

The new campus takes advantage of the nearby bus, train and highway access and creates a place that can educate Austin's future workforce, he said, creating far more value than any alternative redevelopment project, Villarreal said.

"Could somebody have bulldozed everything and put up condos? Yes, and it probably would have already happened, but is that the best use of that confluence of transportation—condos?" he said. "I really think there was a concerted vision to almost save [the property] from other types of development."

Nearby retail revival

One of the mall's last remaining and longest-tenured tenants may not move far once the mall closes. Owner Susana Vivanco said she is looking for a nearby location to host her Avon store, which operated out of Highland Mall the past seven years.

Vivanco said she is already close to finding a new home for La Chaparrita, her food court eatery she is rebranding to become Lima Criolla Authentic Peruvian Cuisine and Pisco Bar. The new restaurant will debut in the nearby Lincoln Village shopping center—now dubbed The Linc as part of its own rebranding effort.

Rather than express remorse about the mall's closure, Vivanco said she is grateful to see the mall become a center for workforce training. She is even throwing a farewell party April 25 to send the mall off in style.

"My businesses might not have happened if Highland didn't give me the opportunity," she said. "Maybe I couldn't have afforded a location?"

Lima Criolla is not the only new food option anticipated at The Linc. Vivo, a Tex-Mex restaurant formerly located in East Austin, is already established at the soon-to-be remodeled strip center. Easy Tiger Bake Shop, a popular downtown eatery on Historic Sixth Street, intends to open an 11,000-square-foot second location at The Linc. The new Easy Tiger will include a beer garden and an outdoor music stage, said leasing agent Eric Dejernett, senior vice president of CBRE, which is working with California developer Misuma Holdings LLC to redevelop the 180,000-square-foot center.

"Going downtown is great, but these days it is a commitment," Dejernett said. "We didn't really want to go somewhere normal—we wanted to go somewhere first."

New neighborhood center

The mall, nearby shopping centers and even mall parking lots are being redeveloped. Austin-based RedLeaf Properties LLC partnered with ACC during the land purchase process to acquire approximately 35 acres surrounding the mall.

RedLeaf intends to create mixed-use development around the new community college campus that will appeal to students as well as nearby residents, said Matt Whelan, the company's principal. Construction begins this fall on the first project, a residential mid-rise that will feature ground-floor retail space. The building should be complete by early to mid-2017, he said.

The entire multi-building development will be completed during the next 10 years and will include up to 1,200 residential units, 200 hotel rooms, 800,000 square feet of office space and 150,000 square feet of retailers, he said.

"If the Austin economy continues to enjoy the success it's had over the last several years, I think construction will be pretty rapid," Whelan said. "One phase will kind of quickly follow another."

The goal is to attract a large employer to one of the development's office spaces, he said. The company, he said, is likely to complement the community college and another potential neighbor, Rackspace, an information technology company tentatively slated to relocate to the former Dillard's space as part of a public-private partnership with ACC.

Because the deal between Rackspace and ACC—a proposed 10-year contract with two five-year renewal options—is not yet complete, Bill Blackstone, Rackspace director of Austin operations, declined comment for this article.

Should the deal be completed, Villarreal said the new ACC campus will truly be a diverse mix of uses that will help nearby residents forget the downfall of Highland Mall.

"Why not think of it as the next phase or the next part of life for this area we call Highland?" Villarreal said. "Maybe 100 years from now it will be something else. I don't know. Forty years ago, I'm sure nobody thought it'd be a college."