Seven Keys to a Lively Mall Retrofit Austin, TX


The retrofitted Highland Mall in Austin is the combined effort of local residents, developer RedLeaf Properties, and Austin Community College to breathe new life into a closed mall located in the Highland neighborhood. Once one of Yahoo!’s ‘Most Endangered Malls’ in 2009, Highland Mall had been on a steady decline when Austin Community College began acquiring the surrounding land in 2010. ACC’s first phase opened in the fall of 2014, serving 6,000 students. The first mixed-use phase opened in the fall of 2017, with 309 apartment units, 31 affordable units, and ground-floor retail. The project’s first 2+ acres of green space, South Greenway Park, will be open in the spring of 2018.

In this new development of 81 acres, three parks will be added, as well as 1.25 miles of new trails. The development also will feature 1,200 market-rate and 120 affordable-housing residential units, along with 800,000 square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space, 1,300,000 square feet of space used by Austin Community College, and 200 hotel rooms.

The location for such a large-scale mixed-use retrofit is ideal: Just four miles from downtown Austin, Highland’s location is in the nexus of Austin’s many amenities, including being three miles from the University of Texas. The site is served by Capital Metrorail, is on the Airport Boulevard growth corridor, and has direct access to IH-35, US-290, and US-183.

The Highland team reinvented the Highland Mall with these seven features:

  • A synergistic Public-Private Partnership between RedLeaf Properties and Austin Community College was key to creating the new Highland development. As the master developer, RedLeaf has been responsible for the neighborhood’s retail, residential, and office components. ACC brought financial and community backing to the table, in the form of a fully approved bond package, the support of local residents, relationships with major employers, and an innovative new education space in the former mall, including a 600-computer ACCelerator learning lab.
  • The transformation of parking lots into a connected network of pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined streets, blocks and open spaces. Inviting open storefronts, outdoor dining, and pedestrian stoops will encourage interaction between the built environment and the community. Additionally, short blocks, shaded walkways, and easy access to bus and rail lines makes Highland a more convenient destination for people who don’t drive, although the development does offer parking in strategically unobtrusive parking areas. Human-scaled walkability is key to Highland’s design.
  • The adaptive reuse of as much of the old mall structure as possible. Limiting new construction and adapting as many of the old mall buildings and parking lots as possible saves both money and time, minimizes waste, and helps move along at a quicker pace and lower cost.
  • A community-focused planning process that stems from the City of Austin’s Airport Boulevard Form-Based Code Initiative allowed the development to be zoned as a multi-modal corridor and a mixed-use district. Additionally, the plan took direction from regional planning recommendations Envision Central Texas and Imagine Austin, as well as neighborhood planning efforts like the City of Austin Zoning Plan and the Brentwood/Highland Neighborhood Plan. The final plans earned the support of neighbors and local Austin leaders through a process of extensive dialogue with community and neighborhood representatives, ensuring the development’s success in meeting local needs.
  • Direct access to every level of local and regional transportation infrastructure connects Highland to the Austin city fabric. Highland is serviced by Capital Metro’s MetroRail Red Line, as well as multiple high-frequency bus routes and some of the region’s most important roadways. Highland also provides access to Austin’s extensive network of bike routes and nearby pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
  • The installation of green infrastructure includes planting 1,000 new trees and preserving existing trees; incorporating extensive open space into the development; collecting, cleaning, and reusing stormwater; investing in LEED-certified buildings; and creating an integrated urban environment that encourages automobile alternatives.

All of these features work to make Highland environmentally friendly and productive, not only creating less of an adverse impact on the local environment, but actively improving the quality of air and water in Austin.

Highland is striving for a high level of sustainability by supporting regional goals for density and infill development, ensuring economic sustainability through partnerships with government and businesses, fostering cultural diversity through the inclusion of a significant educational partnership with ACC, and creating conditions that actively encourage the use of automobile alternatives.

Phase Two of the ACC campus is scheduled to be completed between the end of 2019 and early 2020. The second mixed-use phase and park is set to open in the summer of 2019.

For more on the Highlands development, see:

Highland Redevelopment Plan

Austin Community College Highland Redevelopment Plan Questions and Answers