“Good Luck with That”:
How Three Urban Eyesores Became Community Jewels
I attended the monthly breakfast of the Urban Land Institute last week and heard a fascinating panel discussion (sounds like an oxymoron, but it was fascinating) with the developers of three adaptive-reuse projects in Central Texas. I came away inspired and wanted to share.
“Good luck with that.” That’s what Matt Whelan of RedLeaf Properties heard when he first started exploring the idea of repurposing the fading Highland Mall in to a multi-use activity center in partnership with Austin Community College. While the average person would consider the property one lot, it actually involved six separate deals. Turns out anchor stores (Macys, JCPenny and Dillards in this case) often own their buildings even though
they’re attached to the rest of the mall. Then there was a multi-developer partnership to contend with. And, uh, asbestos. The process was, in his words, a “horrible mess”.
All in all though, RedLeaf had it a little easier than some, in that the zoning for multi-use was already in place, and they had support from the local neighborhood associations who were getting tired of having to wander through abandoned spaces to get to Wet Seal.
Not so lucky for Silver Ventures, with the vision to re-purpose the old Pearl Brewery in San Antonio. The Brewery had been around since 1881 and had dominated the landscape for years. Back in the day, buildings were built with aesthetics in mind, even if they were eventually going to be used for a mundane (but of course, essential) purpose. By the time the brewery operations moved out the area was blighted and dangerous. Experts said “run”. There was asbestos, there was lead. But the family-owned investment firm that backed the project was not to be deterred.
There were some tough decisions, but they stuck to their guns. When they went to apply for historic tax exemptions they were told that they would need restore the layers of paint over the gorgeous original brick, because that was what the structure looked like when it was deemed “historic” about 50 years ago. In an expensive but laudable move, they decided to forgo the exemption and keep the brick. In the words of Lisa Rosenzweig of Silver Ventures, “Every time you veer off the vision you chip away at the project." So they decided to chip away at the paint instead.
Perhaps the most risky of chances was taken by Southwest Strategies Group, which spearheaded the creation of the Seaholm district in partnership with the City of Austin. The original power plant was a brownfield site, meaning “redevelopment may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances and pollutants.” Asbestos, check. Water leaks, check. Tar pit in the parking lot, check. Doesn’t that sound fun!
And that was just in the power plant. The 280-unit condo tower was being built next to the train tracks, and when the choo-choo came by every few hours they had to stop construction meetings untill it passed. Southwest Strategies principal John Rosato eventually ended up signing a $1.9 million dollar change order to replace all the glass with a special sound-resistant version so they wouldn’t have to teach every resident sign language.
But despite the challenges, each of these projects succeeded spectacularly.
Today, the Seaholm district is an internationally-acknowledged urban redevelopment project. Featuring residences, retail shops (including Trader Joes, finally!), restaurants and events spaces, it also houses the Under Armor corporate headquarters and several other offices.
Down the road a bit, the Pearl complex is a cornerstone of a rapidly-revitalizing San Antonio. Featuring apartments, retail shops, restaurants, parkland and the chi-chi Hotel Emma, the Pearl complex is a destination now for San Antonians and visitors alike. And, every retail store and restaurant is local. This was another big risk – they could have pre-leased most of the property to national chains – but their vision wasn’t to create another mall for Starbucks and phone stores. They stuck to their vision and it has paid off.
Back home, the Highland Mall project is evolving every time you drive by, which I do, being in the ‘hood. Austin Community College moved into its 1.3 million square foot facility in 2014, and has been focusing on the business of workforce innovation since then. The rest of the property is being developed in to apartments, restaurants, retail, parks and offices spaces; providing a walkable destination for students and non-students alike. Being just across from the Metro-rail stop doesn’t hurt.
So, next time someone says "Good luck with that" to your pie-in-the-sky project, just remember that at least you probably won't have to deal with a tar pit. And go for it.
P.S. Here are more images of the original Seaholm from local photographer Dave Wilson.