TreeHouse. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Climbing out of the shopping center slump

An eco-friendly home improvement store could be the saving grace of a shopping center once synonymous with a gigantic Condoms To Go sign.

The Hill Shopping Center’s business has been inconsistent over the years, despite its high-profile location at Walnut Hill Lane and North Central Expressway. Passersby were taken aback by the massive adult store sign facing the highway. Popular chains like Kroger and Dave and Buster’s vacated the property. The family who owned the development from 1980 to 2014 never invested in its upkeep, and the buildings slowly deteriorated.

“It certainly hasn’t been a place that people have been shopping,” says Todd Minnis, president of Capref Manager LLC, who is overseeing the center’s redevelopment.

TreeHouse. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

The Dallas-based partnership bought The Hill three years ago. It’s in the midst of an approximately $90 million makeover that replaces concrete with ample green space and revamps each storefront façade. For the mixed-use development to survive, Capref needed to attract businesses that weren’t offered in nearby places like Preston Hollow Village.

Austin-based building supply store TreeHouse was the first company to take a chance on the under-developed site.

“It was a disaster,” says CEO Jason Ballard. “There were few to no open businesses. There were a lot of old abandoned buildings. The parking lot was in bad shape.”

The property’s shortcomings made it the right spot for the store’s second location.

“It was sort of intentional and goes back to the mission of the company … The idea for a home, or for a development, or a city is that when TreeHouse comes to town, things get better,” Ballard says. “We sort of picked the derelict intersection on purpose.”

Founded in 2011, TreeHouse markets an unconventional approach to home improvement. It strives to sell eco-friendly, sustainable products, in addition to offering installation services and park-like spaces to hang out.

The success of its Austin store surprised even Ballard. In four years, the company’s revenue increased 300 percent, he says.

TreeHouse’s neighborhood location already attracted nationwide media attention as the first energy-positive retail store in the United States. It runs entirely on a Tesla battery backed by solar power, so it actually adds power back into the grid.

The company’s dedication to preserving the environment is a component of The Hill’s transformation, but it’s not Minnis’ focus.

“You have to lead with experience-based retail, activity-driven retail,” he says.

Restaurants like Hat Creek Burger and Tacodeli have announced plans to open at the development. Both started in Austin, like TreeHouse.

The Hill’s overhaul won’t be complete until summer 2018, but TreeHouse opened to shoppers last month. In the meantime, Capref is determined to erase the center’s former reputation — and the now-demolished Condoms To Go sign — from the public’s memory.

“If we get the right mix of retail and restaurant, health and fitness, spa and beauty, it will become the center point. It’s so well located.”