The repurposing of derelict buildings into new, highly functional facilities that bring value to the community is an important practice in sustainability. By giving a renewed purpose to these structures, architects and developers find worth in outdated buildings, furthering the growth of communities while preserving history to have a major, lasting impact on the built environment.

In 1971, Highland Mall opened near the north junction of Interstate 35 and Highway 290 as the first suburban mall in Austin, Texas. With time, the advent of online shopping and competition from other local retail destinations, the mall and its customer base deteriorated in the new millennia. With the growing number of bankrupt and vacant stores, the urban decline of the entire region was accelerated. Realizing this inevitability and recognizing the opportunity to centralize critical programs and serve a growing population, Austin Community College (ACC) purchased the land to renovate the defunct mall into a state-of-the-art center for innovative learning, training excellence and community engagement.

The Highland redevelopment includes plans to honor the project site’s original tenant, even before Highland Mall—the St. John’s Industrial Institute and Home for Orphans. Opened in 1911, the orphanage served around 300 to 500 children and was highly regarded as an educational institution for decades. Even more, the surrounding area featured a popular annual conference that drew as many as 25,000 African-Americans to celebrate and stay in the event’s signature Encampments. After being abandoned in the 1940s, the orphanage burned down a decade later. To recognize this important part of the Highland site’s history, the finished development will include a park called the St. John’s Encampment Commons. The Encampment was a location for African-American education, religious events and community building. In the repurposing of the mall, ACC will be returning the land to its history as a place of education and community.

The $100 million adaptive reuse ACC Highland project joins ACC’s network of 11 campuses spread across Central Texas, all committed to training future workers. Part of a larger, mixed-use redevelopment of the area, in partnership with Redleaf Properties (Redleaf), the campus has been master planned to be completed in three phases. Phase I, which was completed by Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects (BGKA) and opened in fall 2014, converted the former JCPenney into new campus space, including classrooms, a library, study areas and the 32,000-square-foot ACCelerator, the largest and most technology-enhanced learning environment in the nation. To further reshape ACC’s higher education offerings and revitalize the surrounding community, construction is underway on Phase II of the project, which includes approximately 400,000 square-feet of former mall space.

The design aspect making the largest impact in Phase II is a paseo cut through the existing mall to connect the mixed-use development entry to the park land that will repurpose the Encampment. This new paseo will contain displays featuring the history of the site and serve as a public outdoor space that brings together many of the community functions of the program such as the restaurant, black box theater, dance hall, gallery, lecture hall and workforce training center. The paseo is intersected by the future of ACC as an internal boulevard of innovative learning spaces and nodes of interdisciplinary student collaboration zones. In this way, the big idea ties together the Highland story of the past, present and future of the community all related to innovations in education.

Phase II will be home to educational programs in high-demand career fields to prepare students for the jobs driving the Central Texas economy, like those in health services, digital media, culinary and more. To support these programs, ACC Highland will include a 124,900-square-foot creative and digital media center, providing a space for art, music, commercial music, dance, drama, radio, television, film, photography, visual communication, computer programming, animation and gaming technology programs. The goal of the center is to develop students’ aptitude in technology and creative sectors, two critical components of the regional economy in Austin, a booming hub for culture and innovation.

Similarly, the campus will also house an almost 20,000-square-foot Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Center, effectively tripling its space for culinary arts instruction. This new addition enables ACC to accommodate training more students for careers in the food service industry.

Additionally, more than 33,300 square-feet of space will be dedicated to continuing education classrooms to support expanded offerings in workforce development, healthcare, dental and culinary programs. The Regional Workforce Center will feature flexible spaces that can be quickly modified to provide customized training or manufacturing space for specific, regional job market needs.

Austin is known for being a thriving place for start-ups, so to support this innovative activity, Highland will include a business incubator space that can be used to accelerate new businesses and creative ideas.

To provide cutting-edge career and technical education and hands-on experience, the facility will also have a 14,000-square-foot Health Sciences Simulation Center. The Simulation Center will supplement the local area’s demand for nurses and other healthcare workers, expected to grow with the aging population and a new, Austin-based medical school.

The interior of Phase II of the campus, designed by the Texas practice of global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will in collaboration with Barnes Gromatzy Kosarek Architects, simplifies the wayfinding ability of students and utilizes natural daylighting in classrooms and hallways. The interiors incorporate the reuse of glazing, steel and other elements from the old mall to highlight the adaptive reuse and sustainable attributes.

The exterior of the campus, designed by BGKA, continues on the architectural character established by the firm in the first phase of the ACC Highland development and features an active paseo for socializing, studying and dining and a large entry canopy. The original stucco walls are being replaced with new stucco on the west elevation, and the paseo walls are clad in metal panels.

ACC Highland will be the college’s hub for community and business partnerships that complement the learning process and help achieve mutual goals. The project will reinforce citywide initiatives and programs accomplishing economic development and vitality, sustainability, mixed-use development and multi-modal connectivity in compatibility with and in continuation of Phase I.

The adaptive reuse of the mall is a targeted effort to transform the campus into a strategic developer of education, workforce, training and economic stimulus. This collaborative endeavor by business, education, neighborhood groups and community leaders to build a strong workforce pipeline will be supported be the further development of the areas surrounding the college, including housing, retail and commercial spaces. In partnership with ACC, Redleaf will be leading the development of 29 million square-feet in the Highland area. When finished, Redleaf anticipates 1,200 residential units, three new parks, 150,000 square-feet of retail space and 800,000 square-feet of office space.

Together, with the overall redevelopment of the area, the new ACC Highland Campus will revamp the surrounding community and breathe life into underutilized spaces. By referencing history while bringing the out-of-use mall to its full potential, the partnership between ACC, Redleaf, Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects and Perkins+Will truly sets the standard for designing adaptive reuse projects that have the power to transform the educational environment and support local economy. This forward-thinking, sustainable building approach will continue to benefit future generations.