We usually have a good time ragging on the outdated urban planning principles of the later 20th century — urban renewal, highways everywhere, other weirdness — so it’s a little embarrassing to admit that Hancock Center, the 34-acre strip mall you know and love(?) at East 41st and Red River Streets, was a more pleasantly-designed environment for human beings between its opening in the 1960s and the 1990s, when sections of the center began being torn down and replaced with more parking lots.
Pull the slider left for an aerial view of Hancock Center in 1985, and right for the same aerial view of Hancock Center in the present day. Images: USGS / Google Maps
In fact, if you just got here you’d have no idea that Hancock Center was technically Austin’s first shopping mall, originally opened in 1964 as a collection of connected department stores and other retail clustered around an inner pedestrian courtyard, allowing access to everything at the center without having to hike across pavement.
The center was always surrounded by vast amounts of parking, of course — we’re not saying it was ever an urbanist’s dream — but the original design, intended to create a facsimile of the walkable shopping experience afforded at the time by the downtown department stores lining Congress Avenue, was far friendlier to navigate on the human level than the outright strip mall you’ll find there now.
This isn’t news to anyone old enough to remember Hancock Center as it once was — Mike Clark-Madison bemoaned the strip-mall-ization of the site in the Austin Chronicle when a major 1997 redevelopment by Lincoln Property Company removed its remaining vestiges of walkability — but the failings of its layout became even clearer after the closure of its anchor Sears department store in 2018.
Though the store was a ghost town for years, its transition from nearly empty to completely empty really drove home how much space dedicated to parking is wasted here every day, even during peak hours — the H-E-B store and other retail at the west side of the center do a brisk business, but the vast parking lots intended mostly for Sears on the eastern and northern edges of the site are so constantly vacant, part of the lot is currently being used for drive-thru coronavirus testing with no impact whatsoever on traffic flow or parking for the rest of the center.
The magnificent desolation of a closed Sears at Hancock Center.
So that’s five paragraphs of bad for you — here’s the good, or at least somewhat promising. City filings indicate Hancock Center’s H-E-B store is planning to expand nearly 40,000 square feet from its current footprint, likely as part of a remodel for the entire store — perhaps not as dramatic or forward-thinking as its vision for an expanded South Congress store, but a sign of life for this center just the same.
The plan would expand the store mostly to the east, occupying the retail space formerly separating the H-E-B from the now-vacant Sears — it’s the area containing the America’s Best and Massage Envy storefronts in the street view below:
(For the record, the Hancock Barber Shop located here has sadly already closed — it appears the owner decided to retire after facing a lack of business due to the pandemic, and it’s not clear this has anything to do with the expansion.)
Plans appear to show the addition of a restaurant space at the front of the store, and the project will also replace the covered pedestrian walkway to the center’s northern parking lot with a new open-air breezeway — that last bit was a requirement from Austin’s Planning Commission, which approved a permit for the expansion last week with the condition that H-E-B provide new pedestrian access. It might still be a shadow of the old center’s pedestrian environment, and we currently have no timeline for when this project will commence or complete, but it’s something.
But even an expanded H-E-B doesn’t solve the problem of the cavernously vacant Sears next door, so it’s promising to see a possible future for the building recently marketed by Stream Realty Partners, which would convert the two-story 185,000-square-foot structure to office space.
Known as the Lewis at Hancock in marketing materials dating back to 2020, the adaptive reuse concept would provide the existing structure with a completely new interior and exterior look, along with a rooftop patio for its tenants.
It’s unclear exactly how definite these plans are at the moment, especially with the uncertainties of the office market in a post-pandemic economy, but permit documents describing a project to convert the Sears into office space were filed by engineering firm Kimley-Horn — the same company associated with plans for the H-E-B expansion, for what it’s worth — back in 2020, so it’s obvious someone’s thinking about it. Stream wasn’t available for comment on the viability of the project at the time of publication, but we’ve still got these nice renderings to think about anyway.
Though it’s not nearly as definite as the H-E-B expansion or enough to remedy the generally poor land use of Hancock Center as a whole, retrofitting big-box stores for more vibrant uses is one of our favorite design topics, and something we’ll have to lean into pretty hard if we ever want to reverse some of Austin’s more suburban-minded planning decisions of years past. At this point, we’d be happy enough just to see Hancock Center return to the level of walkability its customers enjoyed in 1964.