AUSTIN (KXAN) — Along Airport Boulevard in north Austin, the sprawling development that used to be the Highland shopping mall is undergoing lots of construction.

Austin Community College has owned the old shopping center for nearly two decades, converting it into the Highland Campus. Now, ACC is finalizing the Phase 2 of the redesigned facilities to turn the mall into a mixed-use community around a community college campus.

A look at the newly redeveloped Phase 2 of ACC’s Highland Campus on Oct. 14, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

KXAN was invited on campus to take a look at what the changes include.

Phase 2 of this campus is aimed at bringing in new facilities that offer ACC students hands-on experiences and prepare them for the job market

The redevelopment of this campus was a $152.8 million effort (paid for by a bond voters approved), which covers an area over 415,000 square feet. It includes a Creative Digital Media Center, a Health Sciences/STEM Regional Simulation Center, a Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Center, a Workforce Center, the new Jacob Fontaine Plaza off Airport Boulevard and space for more continuing education programs.

A “Wet Seal” logo on the floor is one of the few relics from when ACC’s Highland Campus was a shopping mall. October 14, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

In addition to these new buildings, there are spaces for students to hang out and learn together. Culinary arts updated include an on-campus restaurant, which will give students a chance to practice their skills while also feeding any community members who want to dine there.

Very few reminders of the old shopping mall remain except for a few floor tiles in one entryway, which read “Wet Seal California”—a relic from the clothing store that used to occupy the same space.

ACC’s classes are mostly online now, so construction has been going on while the campus is largely empty. Classes for the district will stay online for the spring semester too, though some career and technical programs like Culinary Arts and Advanced Manufacturing will return for certain hands-on classes in the spring. ACC hopes for Phase 2 construction to be done by summer 2021 when the attached St. John’s is finished.

Andrea Delgado, who is in her second year as a culinary student at ACC said she had “jitters” just seeing the size and scope of the new culinary facilities on the Highland campus.

“When I imagine myself actually cooking in it, it makes me feel so excited that I can’t really explain myself,” Delgado said with a smile.

Delgado said she has loved cooking ever since she was a child and has always been fascinated with the kitchen. She said a big factor in her decision to go to ACC rather than a culinary school was how much more affordable tuition is for her as a resident.

Stephanie Herrington, Department Chair for the Culinary Department, said she is excited to teach students with the new full-sized bakery, pastry shop, skills kitchens, and a demo facility.

“It will be more realistic here for the students, ” Herrington explained, saying that the Highland Campus facilities will give students experiences with, “what they’re going to be encountering in the industry.”

Her department will be getting a major upgrade in size. The current culinary department size at ACC’s Eastview campus is around 6,700 square feet.

Dr. Richard Rhodes, chancellor of Austin Community College, said this new phase of the development, “brings some new entrepreneurial-type activity into the learning spaces.”

He’s not sure exactly when all the new developments will be fully open to the ACC community, but noted, “we’re being flexible by being upfront with the students” depending on the state of COVID-19.

One piece of a mural in an open space within ACC’s Highland Campus sits at the ready to be installed into the larger art piece. October 14, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

After Phase 2 is complete, the only things left to redevelop will be the old Women’s Dillard’s, the old Macy’s, and the mixed-use apartments on site. ACC estimates it will take three to five years to complete all the apartments.

More than a decade in the making

Back in 2010, the district began buying buildings at the mall previously occupied by retail stores like Dillard’s and Macy’s.

The first phase of the ACC Highland Campus opened in 2014 with classrooms, library study areas and the ACCelerator (which ACC says is the country’s largest computer learning lab). In 2014, voters in the ACC district approved bonds including $152.8 million for Phase 2 of the Highland Campus.

In 2015, the Highland Mall closed. The Highland Campus has continued to grow ever since.

The exterior of the ACC Highland Campus with Phase 2 of changes finishing up. (Courtesy: Austin Community College District)