It’s a rise from the asphalt for one of Austin’s newest parks: Highland Greenway Park.

“We took a parking lot and removed the paving and turned it into the park,” said Matt Whelan, principal at RedLeaf Properties. 

On Saturday, the community was invited for the grand opening of the two-acre park. This is the first of three parks planned for the former Highland Mall area.

The mall, which officially closed down in 2015 after seeing a decade-long decline, was picked up by Austin Community College (ACC) and private developers. 

“As it declined, it turned into an asphalt wasteland,” said Whelan. 

The area is now slated for mixed-use development. The change started slowly with ACC taking over JCPenney’s and nearby buildings.

Now, it’s a joint venture between ACC and RedLeaf Properties. 

“[It’s] living space, working space, activity space like [Highland Greenway Park], and the heartbeat, the centerpiece, is learning space. So, they can do all four right here,” said Richard Rhodes, president of Austin Community College.

The park is located on Highland’s south end with access from both Airport Boulevard and Clayton Lane. The developers say, “It features two heritage oak trees to provide natural shade, a collection of new Mexican Sycamore, abundant drought-tolerant landscaping, a community garden and the first leg of a fitness trail that will be a part of a planned district-wide loop.”

This is just one part of the 81 acres of parks, retail, residential and office space that’s slated for the former mall property.

“It’d be similar to Mueller,” said Scott Magic, a Crestview neighbor who stopped by for the grand opening. “Just smaller, smaller, smaller.”

Magic says he’s ready to see the completed project.

“I think this is kind of a food island so, I am very excited about new restaurants and what could be coming,” he said. 

A sign of what’s to come is already visible with the residential complex located near the park boasting restaurants under construction on the first floor. 

Although mixed-used developments are popping up all around, Magic says he understands why some don’t like it.

“Not in my backyard,” he said is one of the many phrases he hears from those against it. “This is too big. Can’t we just build single-family homes?”

But he says he sees a need for it.

“The reality is people are moving here, and they need a place to live. That’s it,” he said. 

Highland Greenway Park isn’t the first park in Austin to rise from asphalt. What is now Butler Park was once just a parking lot. In 1987, Austin came up with the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan. More than a decade later, voters approved the plan. State Sen. Kirk Watson, who was Austin’s mayor at the time, said it was to revive what could be a major asset to the city and make the downtown area a destination. The plan also gave us the Palmer Events Center and fixed up what’s now the Long Center.

Phase two of the residential and retail development section is expected to happen next year.