Goodbye Highland Mall, Hello… Aztex Stadium?

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With Highland Mall on the rocks, discussion is afoot about what might come of the massive chunk of land in north central Austin. The potential closing of Highland Mall presents a unique opportunity for the City of Austin to redevelop a huge chunk of land in the central city. The mall is conveniently located adjacent to I-35 and a soon-to-open Red Line stop on the new MetroRail. Heck, the Greyhound terminal is right around there, too.

Such a huge piece of land gives Austin a chance to really think about what our community most needs, and create a development that reflects it. There should be residential, there should be commercial. It's a great chance for a truly walkable community. One knock on Mueller is that there really isn't much local business to walk to from the residential area. This tract of land could create perhaps the first truly sustainable, walkable, new development in Austin.

The Chronicle reported this week that one initial proposal includes building a stadium for Austin's professional soccer team, The Aztex. According to their website, they play in the USL First Division, and they're affiliated with the owner's team in the English Premiere League. (Related question: we have a pro soccer team?!) Right now, they play at Nelson Field, the stadium for LBJ, Reagan and Anderson High Schools.

Reactions to the stadium idea have been justifiably mixed. If folks' first reaction is like mine — “We have a soccer team?!” — then maybe there isn't a burgeoning need for the project. Many, many cities have been undertaking expensive stadium projects in the past few years, with troubling results. The cost of the stadium often results in unaffordable ticket prices and an over-reliance on corporate luxury boxes. If this recession continues, it's unclear if such a project is really viable in the short term. (We can save the “Will people go see soccer?” debate for another post.)

It's important to note that a stadium wouldn't take up the entire chunk of land–far from it. Chronicle staff created a rough mock-up of what the developed area might look like, using other area business districts as an example and duplicating them as necessary. Click here to look it over first–the footprint of the stadium is small compared to the overall area of land, and shouldn't be blown out of proportion physically when we talk about this potential project.

There are other significant concerns about the economic impact of a stadium. It primarily creates service-sector jobs, which can help employ lower-income Austinites. However, these jobs tend not to offer benefits, and offer little room for career growth. I'll toss an idea out there–what if these workers were able to unionize? Might be a good concession. (Ha! Concession! Stadium! …Sorry.)

The stadium would be used for other events, including concerts. (Capacity for soccer would be 10,000; for other events, 13,000.) We don't have a seated outdoor venue of this specific size in Austin. The indoor Frank Erwin Center packs around 16,755. This will exacerbate the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, but will also provide further economic benefits for the other businesses in the area.

A few other thoughts on potential uses for this land:

  • Affordable Housing. This development absolutely must include some serious affordable housing, and not $200,000 condos. (N.B.: $200K is still not affordable to singletons or young couples who don't have big-time corporate jobs.) This is a huge opportunity to return some economic diversity to central Austin, and we can't let it go to waste.
  • Mass Transit. This lot has the potential to put a vibrant, diverse development directly at a rail station. I would hope it encourages more folks to take the Red Line, when it opens. It would also be a huge step forward for this new development be really bike and pedestrian friendly, to help the residents and folks who use it rely on mass transit and bicycles. The stadium's parking facility could also be used for park-and-ride when there isn't a game or event going on. It's worth noting that the land is just northwest of Hyde Park, which has a pretty solid number of transportation cyclists, bus riders, and other car-free individuals. This development could really help encourage that behavior, and help those Austinites who are carless either by choice or necessity.
  • More Local Businesses. The Chronicle's mock-up shows that a lot of retail or business space could potentially be developed. Let's give preference to local businesses to move into the new area. I'd love to see places like BookPeople, El Chilito, Wheatsville, Little City, Kerbey Lane, and other Austin institutions open an outpost in the area, rather than more multi-national chains. It's a great opportunity to make amends for the problems with The Domain.
  • Existing Area Businesses. The project would likely spur economic development around the Highland Mall area, and hopefully help the great existing small businesses already there. The area is served by a variety of bus lines, thus places like Taj Palace, Jerry's Art-a-Rama, and the Galaxy 10 theater are all great options for folks who don't have access to a car. They'll all benefit from increased customers in a residential community there.

Right now it's unclear what will happen, in part because Highland Mall hasn't completely, officially folded yet. I'm not necessarily advocating for a stadium, but I do think we can do better than the acres of parking lot that surround the increasingly-abandoned mall.

I'll be keeping an eye on this over the next few months. It's worth noting that I have a personal interest in the site, since I'm a Hyde Park resident reliant on public transportation who frequently utilizes the businesses in the Highland Mall area. This is an important opportunity for the City of Austin to do something really fantastic, creative, and progressive with the land, and we need to take advantage of it.  

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About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

21 Comments

  1. Not “directly at”
    More like “across the street on one far end”. This is a big deal – true TOD requires a transit station right in the middle so walks are short and pleasant; not on the other side of Airport Blvd. (and all of that assumes the Red Line can ever become a good urban rail line, which, of course, it cannot).

  2. Mike Myers
    Austin already has a very good soccer (and track) venue that seats 20,000 — Mike Myers Stadium on the UT campus. If the Aztex start drawing drawing more fans, leasing space at UT would make a lot more sense than building a brand new stadium.

    • Reality
      There are a couple things that make Myers a bad fit for the Aztex.

      1. According to Petrucelli in the news conference regarding the Copa Aztex (http://www.austinaztex.com/news/headlines/index.html?article_id=85), the stadium is free for a couple months in the summer. The Aztex season runs from April through October. If they were to use Myers, they would need to either schedule ALL their home games in two months, or play many of them on whatever nights are available around UT events — primarily weeknights, as a guess. That would pretty much guarantee the failure of the team.

      2. 20,000 is way too large for the Aztex need. As big a soccer fan as I am, I'm also very aware of the reality of the sport. The newest MLS stadiums are only being built with 18,500 seats. USL1 is not that level. The Aztex are unlikely to ever draw enough to make opening a 20,000 seat stadium worthwhile.

      3. Ancillaries. This is where many pro sports team shift from 'failing' to 'succeeding'. Having control of the parking/concessions/venue rental. It's a major reason why MLS has gone from 'will it survive' to 'it will survive.' They built stadiums. Renting Myers means that money goes to UT rather than to the Aztex.

      The question, to me, is who's money will be used to build the stadium? The assumption that most people make is 'Austin' because that's historically what major league franchises have done. I think that's what was done out in Cedar Park. But with MLS (and soccer in general), it's not always necessarily been that way. Owners have carried a lot larger burden (in some cases, 100% of it) for soccer stadiums than other sports. I don't know what would happen here, but it's an important piece of information to know.

  3. Good Piece
    In response to the above, the Aztex need a facility about 40 dates during the year.  UT would never allow them to use a facility that frequently.  But more importantly, this could be a world class music venue and attract acts that our currently passing us by.  Ten years ago, we had Southpark Meadows, but ever since it turned into a strip mall, we've been stuck with only offering a once-a-year outdoor festival and the awful acoustic coffers of the Erwin Center.  We can't be the Live Music Capital of the World if we don't have a place for world-class musicians to play.

    All that said, no one has mentioned the most important component to this puzzle.  You have to convince Simon to sell.  General Growth owns half the property, but they've since gone belly-up, so their portion is in bankrupcy limbo.  However, Simon still needs to be convinced it should completely write-off Highland.

    Finally, I agree that we should be exploring affordable housing, and walkability/bikeability, but those things have a hefty pricetag, especially at a site like Highland, in the middle of the City and so close to the affluent Hyde Park.  If people are serious about making it a model project, then people need to be serious about the costs associated with that, which rarely happens in this City.  Everyone just assumes that infrastructure and affordable housing falls from the sky.    

  4. Yes Austin has a pro soccer team and they are pretty good
    “We have a soccer team?!”

    I guess you missed the tv ads on all the local stations back in April or the countless posters around town and at UT, but yes, Austin does have a professional soccer team and they are pretty good.  

    The location would be a perfect one for a privately funded soccer stadium, especially if it tied in with a public transportation hub.  The stadium parking garages could be used by commuters during the week, which would help pull people off of I-35 before they got into the downtown area.  

    I agree that they should not have pricey condos at the site, but some good quality, family friendly condos along with a public park would really do Austin some good.  

    If done right the highland area could become Austin's midtown.  

    In response to LSadun, as David Mauro has already said, UT will not allow the Aztex to play at Mike Myers for various reasons.  The Aztex organization spent a lot of time trying to reach a deal with UT but the mighty tower would not bend.

    As far as the size of the stadium, the team averages a bit over 3,000 fans per match, which is actually pretty solid for a first year soccer club in the US.  With their own venue and the revenue it would bring in, they would spend more money advertising the team and their attendance would grow (this has happened all around the US when teams get their own stadium).

    If it takes a soccer stadium to help make highland into a great new living space for the city, I don't see how anyone could be against it.

  5. A stadium? Really?
    I agree with those who think that's a bad idea. It's a waste. We already have the Longhorns, and we don't seem able to support any other teams. Let the Aztex fend for themselves and build their own support. The city can't afford to do that.

    Thanks for the points on $200K condos. We aren't young singletons and my husband has a fairly nice corporate job — and we STILL can't afford a $200K condo.

    We've watched two recent developments here — the area around what's to be the railstation at St. John's & Lamar, and the Mueller development. Both are disappointing. The St. John's development is just flat-out ugly, so far. The Mueller development is so blandly non-Austin, it could be Dallas…or just about anywhere in the Midwest.

    I hate to say it, but even if the city acquired the land, I doubt Highland would be developed any more distinctively, attractively, healthfully, or sensibly. We'll end up with another TJ Maxx, another Bed, Bath & Beyond, a Hobby Lobby, and a fast food joint, along with art-barfo condos painted kitty-barf orange, avocado-green, and mental-health-institution blue.

    Maybe they'll plant ginkgo trees.

  6. scooter_pete on

    local geography

    It's worth noting that the land is just northwest of Hyde Park

    I think you meant northeast Katherine.

  7. Condo Price
    I don't think that there's any way that you could get $200K for a new condo at the Highland Mall site anyway.  A developer would be lucky to get $100K.  Thus, this is a great site for affordable multifamily housing without extensive public subsidies.

    • Neighborhood Incomes
      I saw an old Statesman article about the mall sometime recently listing the average incomes around the three malls. Barton Creek average area incomes were something like $150K, Lakeline something like $110k, and Highland, something like $40k.

      Not that that necessarily indicates what condos in the area would bear.

      What I think might be more relevant in terms of redevelopment is the condo that's supposed to be built at the Triangle. It's been a while since I saw the plans for it. Not too surprisingly (economy), I haven't seen or heard much activity about it being done.

      One of my concerns about redeveloping the mall site is whether there's any actual need for condos/housing. With the downtown condos being sold at auction, it wouldn't make any sense for anyone to try and put higher price places at the mall.

      But what does 'affordable multifamily' look like, other than massive apartment complexes? I'd love to see brownstones… but is that affordable? I kinda doubt it.

  8. Room For Everything

    Chronicle staff created a rough mock-up of what the developed area might look like, using other area business districts as an example and duplicating them as necessary. Click here to look it over first–the footprint of the stadium is small compared to the overall area of land, and shouldn't be blown out of proportion physically when we talk about this potential project.

    The mall and parking lot take up around 70 acres. If there were no stadium put in there, there's room for four Triangle size developments. If a stadium is included, then there's room for three Triangle size developments.

    The Triangle is supposed to eventually include a 10-story condo.

    Seems to me that there's more than enough room for a stadium/concert venue plus just about any housing/businesses you want plus a good bit of open space.

    I know that the city water board (whatever it's called) would like to see the Tannehill Branch reopened. It currently runs underneath the parking lot along the east side. And I know the neighborhoods around the mall would like to have a park to go to. It's a priority on the Highland and North Loop neighborhood plans — there currently isn't anything in either of those planning areas outside of pocket parks.

    Anyway, as the Chronicle mock-up shows, there's room for a surprising amount in there. While I do have a few questions, I don't think a stadium prevents any of the other things that people want (veloway and valet bike lot, for example;)).

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