AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s first indoor shopping mall officially closes its doors for good Thursday. Highland Mall off Airport Boulevard opened back in 1971 but in recent years lost its anchor stores, and eventually, Austin Community College purchased the mall in 2010.
Last year, ACC opened its newly renovated space inside the old JCPenney location to 4,000 new students. Now, they are moving onto Phase 2, thanks to voters approving a $386 million bond back in November. This next phase involves renovating the original core section of Highland Mall that runs from JCPenney to the former Dillard’s section. The vision is for the space is to have classrooms and labs that focus on innovative technologies, like gaming and health and science.
“At 400,000 square feet, you are talking about an additional 5,000 students, and then it just depends from there as to what other type of programs go in — how much more on top of that,” said Neil Vickers, vice president of Finance and Budget at ACC.
Once the few remaining stores move out by mid-May, crews will begin removing the asbestos and replacing the roof. ACC is in the process of selecting an architect to design the new space, and a builder must also be found. One of few remaining tenants, La Chaparrita, a Peruvian restaurant, plans to stay open until the last minute cooking food.
“Highland Mall gave me the opportunity to start a business in Austin at an affordable rate and central location, and I’m very glad I had seven years with Avon and five years with La Chapirrita,” said Susanna Vivanco, owner of La Chapirrita.
But looking inside Highland Mall, La Chaparrita is one of about 10 stores still open before Thursday’s closing. The overall decline of the mall started in 2006 when JCPenney moved out. A year later, The Domain in North Austin opened, and shoppers started heading north. That same year, there were crowd concerns inside the mall during the Texas Relays. Then in 2009, Dillard’s sued the owners saying they allowed the mall to become a ghost town. A year later, the owner filed for bankruptcy. By 2011, both Macy’s and Dillard’s pulled out of the mall, leaving it without an anchor store.
Phase 2 of the renovations is expected to be complete by 2019. In the meantime, development on the surrounding parking lots could also happen. Within the next 10 years, up to 1,200 residential units, 200 hotel rooms, 800,000 square feet of office space and 150,000 square feet of commercial space is expected to be developed. And finally, ACC still has the old Macy’s available to renovate. No plans are in works just yet; that may take another bond election sometime down the road.
Highland Mall officially closes for good at 9 p.m. Thursday, and mall walkers will soon be allowed inside the ACC Highland campus building while renovations take place.