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Commercial Vacancies Could Provide a Foundation for Growth in District 4

Photo are courtesy of (counter clockwise), Audrey McGlinchy for KUT, John Shapley for KUT, Joy Diaz/KUT

Austin's new city council District 4 is one of the city's most compact districts, geographically speaking. It's easy to define as North Central Austin. One recognizable spot is Highland Mall, which, after its closure, started a chain of building closures and subsequent vacancies in the area.

Jeanine Adinaro lives close to Highland Mall.  Across the street from her sits a huge commercial property; a 51,000-plus square foot space, empty.

It’s a building that, Adinaro says, she’s got a few opinions about. She’s lived in the area for 10 years, and the building has never been rented.

Every so often, the sign in front changes to a new leasing company, but it's had no renters, despite two remodels.

“I don't think it's good for buildings to sit empty for 10 years,” she says. “Nothing good happens to buildings that sit empty for 10 years.”

Adinaro feels safe in her neighborhood, but there have been times when she's called the police on squatters.

This is one of District 4’s challenges. There are hundreds of thousands of square feet in empty commercial properties.

Developer Bryan Kaminski is committed to changing that by reusing properties. Kaminski's company, Red Leaf is in partnership with Austin Community College, which bought the old Highland Mall and transformed it into a new campus. Now, Kaminski is trying to convince restaurants and boutique stores to move into the area.

But it's not happening as fast as Jeanine Adinaro would want.

“I think that there is enough demand for residential condo-style stuff in this neighborhood that if they re-zoned it residential and got a developer to come in and turn it into loft-style condos that they would sell,” Adinaro says.

Kaminski says Adinaro's idea has potential, but that it’s in the early stages right now, which isn’t to say it's impossible. He points at corridors like the one along South Lamar Boulevard and the one on East Riverside Drive that went through a transformation similar to what could happen in the District 4 neighborhoods around St. Johns Ave, Cameron Road and Guadalupe Street, close to Highway 183.

All of that, however, will require city council action.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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