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.