On Tuesday, Austin Community College and Rackspace announced plans for a public-private partnership that could revitalize the dilapidated Highland Mall, turning it into a hub for education and jobs.
The ACC Board of Trustees approved a plan to bring Rackspace, a cloud computing company based out of San Antonio, into the former Dillard’s space. Real estate developer Live Oak-Gottesman provided the plan to renovate the massive amount of free space — nearly 194,000 square feet. While the plan is still in negotiations, all parties are excited to see it come to fruition.
Neil Vickers, ACC’s vice president of finance and budget, tells CultureMap that the deal will fill a space that would have remained unused for years. “The Board’s vision for the entire 1.2 million square feet has been mixed-use, turning the old J.C. Penney’s into ACC Highland and having RedLeaf Properties redevelop parts of the parking lot into apartments or some kind of residential property,” says Vickers.
“But the Dillard’s is structurally different from the rest of the space because of the columns, which we can’t have in the middle of classrooms,” he explains. “We didn't know what to do with it, so we were going to leave it for last to renovate and it would have sat vacant for years. When we looked for ideas on how to use the building, Live Oak-Gottesman came forward with this plan, and they believe it can be complete late next year.”
Live Oak-Gottesman suggested bringing in Rackspace, which would not only mean 570 employees, but also a collaboration with ACC to provide paid internships and assist with education.
It's a familiar story for the tech company, which has had a presence in Austin since 2006. “We’ve been experiencing growth in Austin, and there were two big reasons for wanting to move into the Highland area,” says Bill Blackstone, director of Rackspace’s Austin operations.
“First, it was to partner up with ACC with education. We’ve had a similar experience with our Open Cloud Academy in San Antonio, but it also fits into our company history. In San Antonio, we moved into an abandoned shopping mall. It was the Windsor Park Mall, which we’ve come to affectionately call ‘The Castle.’”
Blackstone also says that choosing the Highland area instead of a space downtown also fits better with Rackspace’s idea of “substance over flash.” “We’re not looking for the type of cool spaces to move into. We cared more about transportation. The location sits well with our employees’ overall commute. It’s still central in Austin and it has access to public transportation.” (Highland Mall boasts a nearby MetroRail station.)
Blackstone is hopeful about the impact that the ACC/Rackspace partnership will have on the community as well. “Overall, we want to help with workforce development in Austin,” says Blackstone. “I’ve heard people from other tech companies saying that they are needing additional talent in Austin. We want this to be a new tech center to provide that.”
Vickers echoes his sentiment. “When we open up the college in August, we will bring back some life to the area with just one piece. Working with Rackspace and Live Oak-Gottesman keeps the momentum going, and with more work we can become the next heart of the city.”