At the southeast corner where Burnet Road passes under Highway 183 in North Austin, an unusual 8.7-acre shopping center sits tucked behind the Highland Lanes bowling alley at 9012 Research Boulevard. Since it’s all connected by an ocean of parking lots, the Lone Star Center strip mall doesn’t look so strange from the ground, but examine the actual bounds of the property and you’ll find a pretty weird setup — this site, the adjacent bowling alley, the Olive Garden, and Cavender’s Boot City are all owned by different people, and the shopping center tract in the rear only extends a small thumb-looking piece towards Burnet Road. Just get a load of this aerial:
As always, this weirdness is a result of sprawly vintage urban planning running up against the city’s relentless history of highway expansions — prior to the mid-1990s, 183 was a surface-level arterial, which meant you could turn directly into the shopping centers built down its sides around the 1970s. Once the highway was elevated and you instead had to take one of a limited number of exits onto Research Boulevard to easily access places like the Lone Star Center, suddenly the layout of a bunch of existing commercial properties along the edges of 183 in this area made little to no sense.
The shopping center, anchored by the also slightly odd-looking Furniture Row showroom alongside a number of other quirky businesses and owned by an entity linked with Connecticut-based real estate firm U.S. Properties, is now seeking a rezoning from the City of Austin to redevelop the site with potentially hundreds of new homes. The rezoning application now pending with the city, filed on behalf of the owners by local land use law firm Armbrust & Brown, really doesn’t mince words about the current situation at this site — it’s described as “outdated” and “auto-oriented,” among other amusing mic drops.
The Property initially developed over 40 years ago, around 1980. At the time, much of the Burnet Road corridor served as auto-oriented, single-story, ‘strip mall’ commercial – the types of spaces that featured large setbacks, with expansive surface parking lots separating the sidewalk from the buildings . . . This context and location supported the prevailing auto-centric, suburban-style commercial development model at the time the Property was first developed. The Property’s location at the intersection of US-183/Research Boulevard and Burnet Road made the site easily accessible by vehicle at a time when city policies were largely designed around that form of transportation.
Today, however, these same factors support multifamily redevelopment instead of a commercial or mixed-use project. Contemporary mixed-use and commercial corridor projects often depend upon visibility and pedestrian foot traffic – two key elements that are missing from this Property. The Property’s limited Burnet Road frontage once served to quickly move single-occupancy vehicles into a parking lot; today, this limited frontage prevents the project from building out to the corridor and limits commercial visibility. Its primary frontage along the highway once served as a major access point; today, it prevents pedestrian foot traffic and accessibility.
— Armbrust & Brown, Lone Star Center Rezoning Application
The application states that a redevelopment of this site could yield a whopping 700 residential units across multiple phases of construction, which isn’t a crazy level of density considering the tract is more than eight acres, but still potentially a big improvement from its current heavily overparked condition. It remains to be seen if the unique weirdness of this site will convince the Planning Commission, which will likely consider the case at an upcoming meeting, to give the property owners their desired MF-6 zoning. That’s a high-density residential use category with no mixed-use component, and technically it’s considered a downzoning from the site’s current commercial zoning, as if the situation here wasn’t weird enough already.
Just like the pending redevelopment of the Highland Lanes bowling alley next door, we hope for the sake of the center’s current retail tenants like Emerald Tavern and the O.G. location of Slab BBQ that this potential project is a ways away — but hey, either way it’s not a bad opportunity for a brief history lesson on how much 183 sucks.