Corporate partnerships are the lynchpin for many college programs
Campus Issues / Technology
Using partnerships to curb cost of facilities, services
More in: Workforce Development / Opinions
Auto consortium takes on the manufacturing challenge
More in: Government / Workforce Development
An illustration of how the former Highland Mall can become a college campus.
A shopping mall where Austin, Texas, residents once strolled the aisles searching for bargains is being converted into a community college campus where people will have an opportunity to acquire new skills.
Highland Mall used to be Austin’s first indoor mall but started to decline as the population changed and the anchor stores moved to newer shopping centers in the suburbs. It’s now being transformed into Austin Community College’s (ACC) Highland Campus.
Four or five years ago, ACC was expanding and going through a major districtwide facilities planning process, and the board of trustees directed the college to increase its presence in central Austin and find a new home for its central offices, said Neil Vickers, vice president for finance and budget.
The mall property, which is next door to ACC’s administration building, was seen as a potential site for a new facility. The college began purchasing pieces of the 1.2 million-square-foot property two years ago in a complex series of transactions involving multiple owners, said ACC spokesperson Alexis Patterson Hanes. By August 2012, the college completed its purchase of the entire mall for nearly $41 million.
It's not unusual for community colleges to rent space at malls to house programs or centers, such as small business development centers. Last month, Des Moines Area Community College (Iowa) opened its $12-million Center for Career and Professional Development at a local mall (see video at the end of this article). The space is in a renovated wing where J.C. Penney used to reside before it closed more than two years ago. Developers are interested in renovating such malls into mixed-use centers that combine retail, education and recreation space.
Recently, a growing number of community colleges are buying vacant stores in urban areas and either renovating or razing them to build new facilities, often as part of a plan to economically rekindle aging downtown areas. In other areas, In 2009, the Lone Star College System (LSCS) in Texas bought for $42 million a 1.2-million-square-foot campus in eight buildings that once served as headquarters for Compaq Computer Corp.
In the first phase of ACC's new Highland Campus, the college is transforming a 200,000-square-foot building that once housed a J.C. Penney’s store into what will be the largest math emporium in the nation, Hanes said. Renovations are under way, and that building should be complete and open for classes in fall 2014, according to Vickers.
The math emporium will have 604 computer stations in a flexible layout and will focus on innovative approaches to developmental math, said Vickers, who noted that “math is the largest hurdle for incoming students.” It is based on the math emporium concept developed by Virginia Tech University with flexible learning spaces allowing students to work individually or in groups.
The open space with computer stations will be surrounded by adult basic education classrooms, faculty offices, a library, student union, food services and an office for an ACC partner, Capital IDEA, an organization that promotes college and career preparation training. The second floor will have instructional space for classrooms and science labs to relieve overcrowding at other ACC campuses.
The core part of the mall is still intact, with smaller stores and a food court still operating. ACC plans to hire a master planner to help determine how the college can best use the large open spaces in the interior. One idea is to use some of that space for clustering academic programs “to mirror what people deal with in the real world,” Hanes said. For example, a potential “creative media cluster” could combine related programs, such as journalism, graphic arts and videogame design, which use similar technology but are at different campuses. Bringing them together would create some synergy, Vickers added.
ACC’s wish list for that space also includes an incubator for budding entrepreneurs; offices for community collaboration initiatives; workforce, health and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs; a conference center; and performance space.
Vickers said the mall could also provide temporary facilities for college programs in buildings undergoing renovated.
One thing the college has already decided to do is cut windows and skylights into what is “a big concrete box” to provide more natural lighting.
“That is one of the challenges but will also be one of the biggest improvements,” he said.
He also hopes to improve the look and feel of the façade and put in lots of trees so “the parking lot will no longer be a sea of concrete.”
Once completed, the new campus will allow ACC to increase enrollment, but it’s too early to say how many more students could be served, he said.
A complex acquisition
At first, ACC only planned to acquire the building that housed a Dillard’s department store, which was closest to the college’s business center, Vickers said. A few months after ACC acquired Dillard’s in May 2010 for $4.71 million, Macy’s decided to relocate, so ACC purchased that 223,000-square-foot property in December 2010 for $5.7 million.
“The former Penney’s space was already vacant. We knew we could buy that if we wanted to,” Vickers said. “At that point, we started thinking it makes sense for the college to own the whole thing.”
The college than purchased the land under the core of the mall for $14.8 million in May 2011, closed on the J.C. Penney's property and other stores for $15.7 million in August 2011, and acquired the ground lease for the core mall building in August 2012 for $1.5 million.
The whole property amounts to more than 80 acres.
“It’s a really good fit for the college. It’s centrally located and has good access and ample parking,” said Vickers, noting that it’s right off an interstate and there’s an urban rail station across the street.
The master plan for phase two of the Highland campus is expected to be completed by next spring or summer. Further renovations, though, are contingent on passage of a bond issue on the November 2014 ballot.
Vickers hopes that voters will see the advantage of this project.
“We view this as a big win for the community,” he said. “It’s exciting to bring new energy to this area.”
In Iowa, a former department store is now a state-of-the-art career center
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges