Lumina Focus: College Reshapes Shopping Mall and Students are Buying
AUSTIN, Texas — Where shoppers once roamed the aisles of a JCPenney, students at Austin Community College now flock to a computer laboratory with 604 stations. Down the hall, in another part of the former store, a bioscience incubator lab rents out space to startup firms and offers undergraduate students graduate-level research opportunities.
It’s all part of the Austin college’s ambitious plan to expand its campus and services by transforming a sprawling former retail mall into a campus for workforce training and lifelong learning.
The Highland Mall, opened in 1971, was a destination for shoppers for generations. But as the mall aged and tenants began to leave, Austin Community College saw an opportunity. It bought the mall and its 82-acre site, including vast parking lots, for $42.6 million.
Located near Interstate 35 and state Highway 290, and accessible by rail and bus lines on adjacent Airport Boulevard, the mall site is now buzzing with activity. The $60 million first phase of redevelopment — occupying what was once a JCPenney store, a food court and other retail space — opened in 2014 with the ACCelerator, the huge computer lab. The incubator lab opened in January, and the converted space also houses a library, the campus police office and other classrooms.
And in September, the college broke ground on the redevelopment’s second phase, a $152.8 million project that will add 415,000 square feet of new space that will allow the college to serve an additional 5,000 students.
“ACC Highland is about breaking down walls and barriers that keep students and people in our community from truly achieving their dreams and pursuing their passions and going into the workforce to make a difference in our community,” said Richard Rhodes, ACC president and CEO, during the recent ground-breaking ceremony.
The second phase of the project will include the college’s first school-to-business incubator, a health sciences center, multi-media art gallery, and a culinary arts center with a restaurant operated by ACC students, faculty and staff. The next phase will also include expanded space for other programs, including performing arts, creative writing, computer-aided design, visual communications, information technology, hospitality, performing and fine arts and radio, television and film.
The project began under former ACC President Steve Kinslow and has moved ahead under Rhodes. In 2014, ACC district voters approved two bond proposals totaling $386 million to advance the project.
ACC is also working with private developers to redevelop some of the open spaces on the campus. Multi-use buildings that will include apartments, retail and dining are rising on old parking lots.