All over America, traditional indoor shopping malls are biting the dust. An object of fascination for Internet aficionados and urban planners alike, abandoned malls, with their spooky, frozen-in-time interiors, invite a kind of morbid curiosity as well as visions of planning grandeur. In Austin, Highland Mall, once a regional shopping destination, was in its own death throes in 2007. Soon after, Austin Community College (ACC) was preparing a district-wide master plan with local firm Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects, and began to search for the additional 200,000 square feet of “swing space” needed to implement it. At the same time, RedLeaf Properties was interested in developing new mixed-use projects around the dying mall, building on the success of Austin’s Mueller project on the city’s old airport. Sensing the synchronicity, ACC and RedLeaf entered into an agreement, and Highland Mall was given a new lease on life. Later, cloud computing company Rackspace opted to get in on the project, agreeing to occupy the old Dillards to support its expansion in the Austin area. The first phase of the multi-faceted project for the ACC Highland Campus is the former JC Penney’s store along the mall’s north side.
Highland Mall was designed and built in the early 1970s and its exterior resembled what architect N. Thomas Kosarek calls an inverted wedding cake. Heavy planes of poured-in-place concrete were embedded firmly in vast parking lots. Although most of ACC’s makeover dollars were spent inside, some strategic exterior intervention was needed to introduce natural light to the big box. BGKA opened the west elevation with curtain wall glazing and a large porch that wraps around to the north side, creating a shading device and marking the main entry. As with many malls, variations in terrain meant that entries on different sides of the building occurred on different floors. A new thoroughfare was cut into the north grade, exposing more of that elevation and allowing for additional window openings. Terraced landings step down along this new thoroughfare, creating a primary series of outdoor hangout spaces.
The design also inserted a long skylight system along the interior east-to-west circulation spine, illuminating the “academic main street.” The former elliptical opening that contained the escalator was reconfigured into a rectangle and other square openings were cut into the second floor along the spine to provide visual connectivity and allow light from the skylight to reach the ground floor. The geographical center of the space houses a large “social stair” designed to encourage gathering and interaction. The academic main street effectively serves as the campus commons, and the social stair also creates a space for a small coffee bar and lounge area underneath.
The building’s main focus, however, is the “ACCelerator Lab” on the ground floor, designed to assist students primarily with developmental math. According to Bill Mullane, ACC’s Executive Director of Facilities and Construction, this new lab will address one of the biggest academic impediments that students face today. Spread over 32,000 square feet, the ACCelerator is modeled after a delivery method at Virginia Tech University and will be the largest of its kind in the U.S., with more than 600 computer stations to accommodate an innovative computer-based, self-paced modular approach to instruction.
ACC retains all of the buildings in the entire mall, which is currently being master planned by Austin’s O’Connell Robertson and Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York.
Beyond that, RedLeaf will redevelop most of the space around the mall, creating an 85-acre transit-oriented urban village, the planning of which is underway by McCann Adams Studio, veterans of the Mueller redevelopment. Highland will connect to a major transit hub, with planned rail leading to downtown (and other ACC campuses), as well as the northern suburbs. It will also serve as the western anchor for the Airport Boulevard Corridor redevelopment that stretches from Lamar Boulevard eastward to IH 35 and the Mueller neighborhood.
As ACC’s eleventh regional campus, the new Highland Campus will open for the Fall 2014 semester, ready to accept as many as 6,000 students.