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It's a mall world after all: New ACC Highland campus opens this weekend
A peek inside the new Austin Community College in the former Highland Mall, plus a chat with the architects, who design college campuses with student wellbeing in mind.
When the Highland Mall opened in 1971, Austin was a different city.
With fewer than 300,000 people in the metro area, the city was known for two things: The University of Texas and the State Capitol.
Interstate 35 had opened a few years earlier, and the city was still recovering from the 1966 UT Tower shooting.
But at the intersection of U.S. 290 and this new interstate, a brand new kind of building was unveiled to the city: a split-level indoor shopping mall.
This was a decade before America’s mall craze hit a fever pitch. Barton Creek Square didn’t open until 1980, which gave Highland Mall plenty of time to become *the* shopping destination for Austinites who were looking for a new suit, a new pair of shoes or a new place to hang out with friends.
As the Highland Mall introduced a new shopping experience to Central Texans, another institution brought a new learning experience.
Austin Community College opened in 1973 in the former Anderson High School building in East Austin with about 1,200 students.
(It’s interesting to me that Austin voters had rejected a taxpayer supported college system *three* times during the 1960s. It wasn’t until the city proposed a system operated by Austin Independent School District that it passed, but by 1986, ACC had outgrown the AISD partnership and voters approved its expansion to serve the entire county and surrounding areas.)
These days, ACC serves more than 70,000 students at 11 campuses throughout Central Texas.
The Highland Mall didn’t have that kind of success.
By the time I moved here in 2006, the mall was struggling, and in 2012, ACC announced that it had purchased the property with the intent to redevelop it into a flagship campus.
Within just a few years, ACC opened the first phase of the new campus, designed by the Austin-based Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects, in the former JCPenny that housed a library, classrooms and a tech-centric space that they called the ACCelerator.
The mall officially closed in 2015, and in the seven years since, the campus has been a (maddening, to the students and faculty who have been using it) construction site.
But this weekend, the second phase of the development, overseen by the Chicago-based architects Perkins+Will, will officially open with a community-wide celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Students have been taking classes at the campus, to some degree, since 2015. My partner, Frank, teaches at the photography department, and they officially moved into Phase II last fall, which is why I’ve had a chance to check out the inside of this $100 million campus several times over the past year.
This newest phase adds 400,000 square feet of educational space, and yet the campus still isn’t finished. Phase III includes a park called St. John’s Encampment Commons, named for the St. John’s Industrial Institute and Home for Orphans, an orphanage for young Black children that later became home to an annual gathering that drew thousands of people.
I’m interested in this new campus for all kinds of reasons, especially after interviewing the architects at Perkins+Will for a recent story I wrote for Metropolis magazine about a similar community college project in Allen, Texas.
The architects who worked on the Collin College campus also worked on the ACC campus, and both of the projects reflect a movement happening at community colleges across the country to bring high design to the workforce education experience.
Both campuses were designed with student well-being in mind — quiet spaces for studying, communal areas for collaboration, a modern design aesthetic to give the campus a sense of place. One of the architects pointed out that, after two years of a pandemic, having access to outdoor areas, natural light and relaxed seating options are more important than ever.
The new ACC campus has all of these elements, but I think the fact that the campus is a redevelopment project of a once-beloved space is the greatest gift to the city.
In our quest for growth, it seems the city’s construction and architecture firms are particularly eager to tear down existing buildings to build new ones, but we lose so much when we replace buildings entirely because we lose the stories associated with them.
I didn’t grow up going to the Highland Mall, but I know it was a place that meant a lot to a lot of people, particularly Black Austinites, who became the core demographic as the mall aged.
To know that the building will have a new life means that people who do have those memories can walk inside the space and revisit that time and place in their own memory.
And because of the thoughtfulness of the architects, new Austinites can experience the former mall for the first time and remember that Austin didn’t become a city the day they moved here.
As a food writer, I’m particularly excited about the culinary arts space that will be opening a restaurant soon. Right before I left the Statesman, department chair Stephanie Herrington gave me a tour of the kitchen and eatery space that has room to expand to include a micro-brewery.
I’ll write more about the student-run restaurant when I can finally go and eat a meal there, but in the meantime, if you want to check out the new ACC campus, this weekend is an excellent opportunity to do so.
One last note before I go: If you have fond memories of Highland Mall, share them!
As Austin changes, it’s imperative that we have a dialogue that includes oral histories (aka, the stories you’d tell your buddy over a beer) about what the city was life "before.” Whatever that means to you. We do this not to lament the changes that have happened to our fair city, but to add context to how and why it is changing and to add layers of meaning and perspective to what we understand about Austin now.
Just in writing this story, I was shocked to learn that Austin rejected ACC’s formation during the 1960s and I wanted to know more about the early days of Highland Mall. I knew about the St. John’s orphanage home thanks to Michael Barnes’ reporting, but there’s still much to uncover about these elements of Austin history.
This is what I love about The Feminist Kitchen. Since 2010, it’s been a home for stories focused on food and family, and now it’s also a place to share articles like this one about our changing city.
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Until next week, I hope you all have had a great weekend!