In a 2014 ULI Fall Meeting session titled “Repurposing and Repositioning,” developers and architects discussed how they are breathing new life into three very different obsolete retail venues. What the three properties have in common is that all were developed originally by the Rouse Company of Columbia, Maryland.
Moving eastward, a more radical shopping mall transformation is taking place in Austin, Texas. The 81-acre (33 ha) former Highland Mall had become a “dead whale” in a part of suburban Austin that had been a “desert for investment,” explained Matt Whelan of RedLeaf Properties and Live Oak–Gottesman. Opened in 1971, it was Austin’s first suburban shopping mall, but in the ensuing decades, retail dynamics shifted toward the west.
In 2010, RedLeaf partnered with Austin Community College (ACC) to purchase and redevelop the mall in order to create a compact, mixed-use, walkable district based on new urban principles, Whelan explained. But it was no easy task. Most of the existing space was owned and operated by a partnership of General Growth and Simon Property Group; AIG owned the underlying land; two lawsuits were underway; and investors and retail operators owned some of the property separately. It took six transactions over 2.5 years to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Once that was done, the partnership embarked on an innovative scheme. The community college, with a $300 million–plus budget and a service area the size of New Jersey, wanted educational space but did not need street visibility. ACC’s 1.3 million square feet (121,000 sq m) of space will occupy the entire former mall plus new construction. RedLeaf is transforming massive former parking lots into a mixed-use community with 1,200 homes, 200 hotel rooms, and neighborhood-serving retail.
ACC has completed a master plan for its space focusing on technology and health sciences education, and already has redeveloped the former JCPenney store. The college recently announced plans to bring Rackspace, a San Antonio–based cloud computing firm, into the building formerly occupied by Dillard’s; under its agreement with ACC, Rackspace will offer paid internships to ACC students. RedLeaf plans to break ground on a 300-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail space in 2015.