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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 July 15 - 10:03 am

Shopping for Solutions

Austin Community College Converting Mall Into New Highland Campus

There was a time that the Highland Mall in Austin was the place to be in Texas’ capital city.

The city’s first indoor shopping mall opened in 1971 with four anchor stores and nearly 200 others. People from all around central Texas came to shop, meet and greet, and see and be seen. It remained popular until the 1990s. It was a destination.

But recent years have not been kind to Highland Mall. More than 40 years after it opened, its anchor stores have long since closed their doors and its vast parking lot sits largely empty. Only about 60 retailers remain.

The unceasing march of suburbia has given shoppers many more options. The expansion of technology and the rise on online retailers like Amazon have changed people’s shopping habits. Many malls that popped up like mushrooms in the 1970s are closed or struggling to survive, just like Highland Mall. But today, Highland Mall is being transformed into a destination of a different sort — an educational hub that will feature some of higher education’s most innovative approaches and serve as the centerpiece of a sweeping redevelopment plan.

Yes, Austin Community College bought a mall.

This fall, ACC will open its Highland Campus inside what was once a J.C. Penney Co. store. It will be ACC’s 11th campus, and, with the capability of accommodating 6,000 students, its largest. At its center will be a 605-station math emporium, longer than a football field, designed to guide students through those nettlesome developmental math sequences.

The new campus will include a districtwide assessment center, nearly 30 classrooms and labs and numerous student lounges intended to encourage out-of-classrooms interactions.

The mall is ideally situated for its new purpose. It’s just a few miles from downtown Austin and the University of Texas. It’s close to four major highways, and a Metro- Rail stop is nearby. The college is working with city officials to bring the rail line to the college’s front door.

College and city officials alike hope the new campus not only will ease overcrowding on other campuses — allowing renovations to commence there — but also serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of a neighborhood that has been in steady decline for years.

Using educational institutions to revitalize urban areas is not without precedent. In San Francisco, the University of California San Francisco anchors a mixed use development at Mission Bay. In Boston, the University Park at MIT includes 1.3 million square feet of research and office space as well as apartments, hotels and restaurants.

ACC officials have had their eye on the Highland Mall property for years. ACC’s administrative offices, in fact, are located nearby, and college officials got a closeup look as the mall faltered and the neighborhood around it decayed.

“We asked ourselves ‘what could we do as a community college to revitalize this area through education?’” said college President Richard Rhodes. “We decided to reinvest through education.”

The college is working with RedLeaf Properties, an Austin development company, to develop the entire 80-acre mall property. Plans call for a compact, walkable urban community with residential and commercial buildings. Parking garages would replace the massive surface parking lots. At the center would be the college.

That RedLeaf and ACC came together was a convenient convergence of interests, said William Mullane, ACC’s director of facilities and construction, during a hard-hat tour of the construction site. Both entities were eyeing the property. Each had its own ideas about its future. Then, those ideas became one.

“We were looking to buy the property at the same time,” he said. “They wanted a major anchor. We wanted the building. These two meshed just perfectly.”

RedLeaf and the college struck a part nership in late 2009. Over the next 18 month, in five separate deals, Red Leaf bought the mall and surrounding properties and resold them to the college for a total of $42 million.

The work being done to convert the JC Penney is just the first phase of a project that could stretch over many years. The college is plotting next step. It will seek voter approval for bond money to convert another 500,000 square feet of space into a educational space. Programs such as digital and creative media, culinary and hospitality, health and science, technology, engineering and math have been identified as possible programs to move there.

But for now, college officials are concentrating on getting the college’s learning emporium — called ACCelerator — up and running. It’s a 605-seat lab that will let students complete courses — in particular development math — in an individualized, computer-based format with assistance from tutors, as needed.

The emporium is modeled after a muchpraised emporium at Virginia Tech.

“We sent some faculty to look at Virginia Tech,” Rhodes said with a smile. “But this is Texas. It has to be the biggest and the best. Virginia Tech was 550 seats. We have 605.”

The main course that will be taught in the emporium will be MATD 0421, a developmental math course that allows students to proceed as quickly or as slowly as they can handle.

MATD represents a new direction in developmental math, Rhodes said. Unlike traditional courses, MATD 0421 allows students to complete more than one level of developmental math in a semester or work on requirements at a slower pace. If students don’t complete a course during a semester, they will be allowed to pick up where the left off in the next semester.

Students attend class at the time slot they select, but can work additional hours or days. They work primarily in the emporium. A course instructor and lab tutors are available to help students in need to individualized instruction. Students watch mini-lectures and activities and complete course work using a computer application called ALEKS. Outside class, students can access ALEKS on their own computer or mobile device.

Going forward, the college plans to provide space for businesses and nonprofits to partner with the college to offer on-site internships and other training programs. Curriculum will be adapted to keep up with the private sector’s demands. Health care and high technology are some of the industry segments that are demanding more trained workers.

In August, the college will welcome its first 3,000 students, a number that Rhodes said is small enough to manage but large enough for the college to determine if it’s on the right track.

“We are really at the beginning stage,” he said. “But we think we are opening up new possibilities. There are a lot of components, but we want to create a community of learning.”

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