Have you ever looked at the Arboretum Crossing and gotten depressed? This half-dead 20-acre shopping center at 9333 Research Boulevard in Austin’s “Golden Triangle” at MoPac, U.S. 183, and Loop 360 was once the pride of the 1990s, a traditional strip mall with lots of big-box retail space built as a companion to developer Trammell Crow’s more upmarket Arboretum shopping center across the highway.
While the Arboretum has maintained a steady popularity over the years, due at least in part to its layout sort of gesturing at the notion of New Urbanism with some walkable design features and those beloved cow statues carved from Italian marble by Texan sculptor Harold Fooshee Clayton — positioned at the perfect height to knock me fully unconscious when I encountered one at running speed around 1996 — the nearby Arboretum Crossing has struggled over the last decade or so, its occupancy situation growing especially dire after Bed Bath & Beyond closed in 2020. World Market and Dave & Busters, the two largest remaining tenants located next to each other at the far end of the strip, are like the two guys trying to finish the keg as the sun comes up.
But there’s hope for the Arboretum Crossing, especially after the California-based Stockdale Capital Partners purchased the center out of bankruptcy from Austin’s own real estate rascal Nate Paul earlier this year — now that World Class is out of the picture, we are more confident something will eventually be built here. After all, it’s a season of strip mall reimaginings across Austin, a process of densifying the city’s previous sprawled-out land uses we’ve dubbed Brodie Oaksification after the transformative plan for a similarly sad shopping center underway in South Austin.
Although there aren’t any public plans for the redevelopment of the Arboretum Crossing at the moment, the City of Austin is doing its best to pave the way for something bigger here by including the shopping center site, along with the larger Gateway Shopping Center directly to the north, in its latest updates to the North Burnet/Gateway zoning overlay — a special district originally created in the 2000s to incentivize denser growth around the Domain area. Now that Q2 Stadium and a number of other large developments have joined the party, the city is working to update the district’s zoning by bumping up height limits and increasing the boundaries of the planning area to include parcels on the west side of MoPac.
The Arboretum Crossing center is one of the properties receiving significantly increased zoning entitlements, with the latest update approved last week by the Planning Commission and headed to City Council in October bumping up the base height limit for this site to 350 feet under a new mouthful of a zoning subdistrict called North Burnet/Gateway Commercial Mixed-Use Midway (NBG-CMU-M), allowing the development of towers rising more than 30 floors. If the city-initiated rezoning moves forward, the Arboretum Crossing and its neighboring sites inside the Golden Triangle like the larger and more active Gateway Shopping Center could all someday see redevelopment — but that 350 foot height limit isn’t the end of the story.
Along with these changes to the zoning plan, city planning staff are simultaneously working to craft a density bonus program for the entire NBG planning area modeled after the city’s existing Downtown Density Bonus Program, which trades extra height and density for community benefits like walkable streetscapes and affordable housing funds in downtown Austin’s Central Business District. A similar program for the North Burnet/Gateway region would allow developers to pursue “downtown-style” heights in excess of 600 feet for new buildings throughout the planning area, assuming their projects comply with whatever requirements the city decides to include in the program — city staff have told us that features like a pedestrian grid throughout the planning area are a major priority, along with other design guidelines clawing back some urban life from the existing patterns of sprawl in this district.
The zoning tweaks and potential new density bonus program are great news for the entire NBG planning area, but we can’t stop thinking about what it might mean for the Arboretum Crossing and the Golden Triangle specifically. Perhaps it’s just the weight of history — in the mid-’80s, Trammell Crow had big plans for the full 126 acres of property inside the Golden Triangle, including a 1.5 million-square-foot indoor shopping complex known as the Stonebridge Mall, further anchored by twin hotels and a large number of office towers. The subsequent collapse of the real estate market following the Savings and Loan Crisis forced the developers to scrap these plans and build more traditional strip mall uses across the region. With the benefit of hindsight and some zoning changes that would have scandalized the Austin of 40 years ago but now barely merit public attention, this part of town has another chance to get it right.
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