• Facing Airport Boulevard, the western facade serves as the primary entry to the adapted structure and larger campus. Photo by Casey Dunn

Location Austin
Client Austin Community College
Architect Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects (BGKA)
Design Team Jay W. Barnes III, FAIA; Lauren Goldberg, AIA; N. Thomas Kosarek, AIA; Rick Moore, AIA; Ray Vela
Photographers Casey Dunn

Highland Mall is in the process of being transformed into a mixed-use neighborhood at the heart of which is Austin Community College’s (ACC’s) new Highland Campus. As part of Phase One, BGKA was hired to redesign the 207,000-sf former J.C. Penney store into an academic hub for North Central Austin. Described as “a brilliant adaptive reuse project” by Vivian Lee, this dead retail eyesore has been transformed into a welcoming, public amenity for student learning.

At the time of its completion in 1971, Highland Mall was the third largest shopping center in Texas, with 80 retail spaces and more than 750,000 air-conditioned square feet. Through a private-public partnership between Redleaf Properties and ACC, the mall structure and its parking lots are being redeveloped into multifamily housing, retail, office, and educational space, totaling over three million square feet that will be accessible by Capital Metro’s light rail and bus lines. Over the coming years, ACC will transform the entire mall structure and construct several buildings within the new Highland neighborhood to create its largest campus to date.

Designers have transformed the exterior from monolithic to engaging, using texture, pattern, and volumetric modulations to break down previously impenetrable facades. The western face, oriented to Airport Boulevard and the terminus of Denson Drive, was a straightforward choice for the primary entry and campus signage. The school’s star logo is stamped in repetition beneath a new two-story porch structure with rhythmic columns, creating a dynamic screen that shields the expansive glass from the western sun. Along the northern face, a significant re-grading reveals more of the envelope, channeling natural light to the ground floor through a series of vertical windows.

Inside, a two-level “Academic Street” became the primary organizing device running east-west from the main entry. This internal backbone is activated by a 170-ft-long linear skylight, which illuminates the ground floor by means of cuts in the heavy floor plates. The original concrete structure is exposed throughout, and complemented by the brightly colored furnishings, streamlined finishes, and diverse lighting. At the center, a social stair facilitates circulation and interaction, while the café beneath promotes gathering for extended periods. Upstairs, classrooms, laboratories, and office spaces line the Academic Street and secondary corridors. Downstairs, students access classroom learning spaces, a media center, and the ACCelerator — an open work environment designed for self-paced learning and collaboration, with 604 computer stations and small study spaces.

BGKA has captured ACC’s vision and set a new precedent for sustainable adaptation of this familiar American typology. “What do we do with these buildings?” Mehrdad Yazdani, AIA, asks. “Do we erase them? Do we reposition them?” The success of ACC presents a strong case for repositioning and calls communities to consider a range of unlikely inhabitants for these vacant retail giants.

Sarah Gamble, AIA, is an architect in Austin.

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