Austin’s Highland Mall has become one of 2009′s most famous dying (though not yet dead) malls due to some high profile craziness and catfights. What’s going on down in the Lone Star State?
I got to check it out for myself a couple weekends ago when I made my first visit to Texas (not counting my two brief swings through Amarillo, anyway). The Highland Mall, developed by James Rouse Company, opened in 1971 as the first enclosed shopping mall in the Austin metropolitan area, just a few miles north of downtown and the University of Texas at Airport Blvd. and I-35. The center’s pretty well located to the city center and the north and east sides of town, but Austin has been one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. in the past decade, and has sprawled dramatically from the city center, bringing more of the population closer to other malls. There’s also one huge, gleaming new outdoor mall (The Domain) that’s in the process of expanding dramatically and it has likely stolen most of Highland’s customer base.
It seems Highland did a pretty screaming business for a long time, possibly until as recently as a few years ago. The center was expanded in 1979 with a new wing and new anchor (Foley’s) adding to its original three, and given another renovation in 1987. The center today has four anchors: Macy’s, Dillards (two stores), and a vacant space that had been JCPenney from 1971 until 2006. According to Wikipedia, the Macy’s had been a Foley’s until the 2006 Federated merger. The Dillard’s at the southern end of the mall had been a Joske’s location until Dillard’s acquired the chain in 1987; the other Dillard’s space was until 1992 a Scarboroughs, a local Austin chain.
Some crazy stuff has been going on at the Highland Mall lately, though:
- In early April of this year, Dillard’s announced they were suing the Highland Mall Limited Partnership–the mall’s owners, made up jointly by GGP and Simon–for letting the mall deteriorate so sharply. This was a very unusual move that made national news–and we covered it here. The best part was a big brouhaha where Dillard’s was upset about having some co-tenant that supposedly sells toilet paper (I didn’t notice it). Mall owners countersued, basically accusing Dillard’s of making crazy stuff up to get out of their lease. Dillard’s wants to shut both of their stores and is seeking to cancel a lease for one of them.
- Also in April of this year, mall management made the controversial decision to close the entire mall on April 4 during the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays event in Austin. The Texas Relays draw thousands of fans each year–mostly African-American–to Austin, and mall management closed the mall due to what they termed “security concerns” during the event. Yow. The NAACP was understandably livid, and planned a demonstration as well as calling for a boycott of the mall. This is especially damaging since Highland Mall’s location within the Austin metropolitan area places it closest to East Austin–the most heavily black area of the city. It seems a questionable business decision to alienate your customer base by insinuating that an entire race of people are criminals.
Now, let’s get realistic for a second: Highland may have a bit of a patina to it, but it didn’t seem that bad to me. There were still plenty of A-level tenants (Gap, Forever 21, etc.) and it didn’t even seem to be struggling with that severe of a vacancy problem. The original 1971 portion of the mall was a little dated, but not severely so (nothing that, say, some new flooring couldn’t fix). The Macy’s wing felt almost newly renovated. I was there on a sunny weekday morning, but the place felt totally safe to me.
Also, downtown Austin is located only a few miles to the south, and is rapidly urbanizing and filling up with moneyed young professionals. For all the things Austin has to offer–including tons of bars, restaurants, and one of a kind boutiques–there’s not a ton of the kind of chain retail that’s found in the city’s malls. With a proper repositioning and clean-up–added entertainment options, for example, or an essentials retailer like Target–the Highland Mall shouldn’t really have much trouble coming back.
Rumors are that the mall is likely to close entirely in 2010 and be demolished to be replaced with something else entirely, possibly a stadium for the Austin Aztex soccer team and a lifestyle center attached to it. One benefit to redevelopment would be Austin’s proposed light rail line, which would directly access the property: any attempts at mixed use or urban density for the site would also have mass transit access, which would be useful for people who want easy carless access to downtown. The site also has some challenges for redevelopment, though; it’s cut off from on all sides by highways or rail corridors, making it hard to make it feel like anything other than an island–like the mall always was. This is also true of The Domain, so maybe it won’t hurt. The Domain is also located in a generally better area of town, though–as Andy Sarwal, lead developer for East Avenue Investment Group LP, told the Austin Business Journal in an article speculating on the site’s future:
“Look at the immediate surroundings in every direction, and it’s generally what people refer to as Class B,” Sarwal said. “It could be Class B office or retail space, or Class A industrial. I don’t anticipate seeing Highland Mall transform into the next Domain or Mueller or La Frontera.
Either way, it seems everyone’s rapidly giving up on this old place.
More on Highland Mall: