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From Runways to Sidewalks

The Mueller neighborhood at midcourse

By Robyn Ross, Fri., Aug. 9, 2013

Bikes roll near Mueller's Lake Park.
Bikes roll near Mueller's Lake Park.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Drawn by the promise of a "New Urbanist" neighborhood three miles from Downtown, the Mueller pioneers hit the trail in 2007 and 2008. Their covered wagons were Smart Cars and Priuses. The homesteads they built were energy efficient. They arrived at the former airport, unhitched their wagons, and installed solar panels on their roofs.

After the dust had cleared, they did what any pioneers would do: They looked for an elementary school for their kids and lunch from an iconic, locally owned business.

Five years after the frontier was settled, Mueller has turned from an idea into a community. Credit for its success so far rests with both the project's design and the enthusiasm of its residents. The prospect of joining a development billed as experimental, progressive, and sustainable motivated them to leave established neighborhoods and put down money for houses that weren't built yet, in a community that didn't exist.

"There was so much intrigue right from the beginning," says Kathleen Malcom, who was among a group of future residents who "stalked" Mueller beginning in 2007. The group met to share tidbits members had learned about the development, and brainstorm ideas for their future neighborhood. "The sense of community began before there were even streets on the ground."

The first wave of Mueller residents – indeed called "pioneers" by master developer Catellus Development Group – has risen to the challenge of building a neighborhood from the ground up. They've started book clubs, a Facebook group with more than 500 members, and progressive dinners, with components toted from house to house in little red wagons.

The weekly Mueller Farmers Market
The weekly Mueller Farmers Market
Photo by Jana Birchum

"The area has this experimental and egal­i­tarian feel to it," says Jill Meyers, a pioneer who moved from Clarksville. "One thing I really feel at Mueller is that we're all in this together, so people really want to talk to each other and exchange ideas. I think random encounters on the street are friendlier or more meaningful because there's a sense that this is something new and that we're building something together."

Yet despite the enthusiasm of its early residents, Mueller is no utopia. Rather, it's an experiment to see what Austin creates with a resource it's unlikely to possess again: 711 acres of city-owned land, smack in the middle of town. As the dream gives way to the reality, it also begins to feel the growing pains of a new neighborhood. How Mueller's architects – and the rest of Austin – respond to its challenges in education, transportation, affordability, and community relationships will set the tone as construction moves forward.

Master Resource

For a taste of life in the neighborhood, you might start on Dusty Harshman's front porch. It's separated from the street by a tiny yard, mostly planted with drought-tolerant prairie flowers. From his corner lot, Harshman can see into the shared green space of the nearby Garden Court homes, where the neighborhood has shown kid-friendly movies on a makeshift screen. He surveys the neighborhood foot traffic and calls most of the pedestrians by name.

Harshman and his family were among the earliest Mueller pioneers. They moved from Brentwood, where they'd rented, attracted by the idea of a walkable, dense, green neighborhood. At Mueller, Harshman and his wife threw themselves into the development's environmental mission, scaling down to one car and a bike. They've talked with other environmentally conscious neighbors about pooling resources to buy a shared "second car" to serve multiple families, and about a community tool shed.

"The design is community-up," he says, waving at a passing jogger. "You're forced to walk to community mailboxes, you've got sidewalks, there's green space close to residents – packing the homes close together promotes interaction and creates community." It's hard to sit on this quiet porch, listening to the birds, and remember that just 14 years ago the only sound here was jet engines.

The planning that created today's neighborhood began decades ago. In the early Eighties, residents in the areas surrounding Mueller formed Citizens for Airport Relo­ca­tion to advocate for moving the airport instead of enlarging it (an option that would have leveled much of East Austin). CARE included Cherrywood resident Girard Kinney and Windsor Park resident Rick Krivoniak, who chairs today's Mueller Commission. The group decided to offer an alternative vision for the land's future, and its CARE plan for a dense urban development was released in 1984. "We all agreed that if we could get the airport relocated, we needed to be thinking from the beginning about what was going to happen at Mueller," architect and planner Kinney says. "We wanted it to be a demonstration of what urban places should be."

(l-r) Girard Kinney, Rick Krivoniak, and Jim Walker near the newly opened H-E-B
(l-r) Girard Kinney, Rick Krivoniak, and Jim Walker near the newly opened H-E-B
Photo by Jana Birchum

Kinney went on to chair the Mueller Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force of the mid-Nineties, a 16-person group, including Krivoniak, charged with creating guidelines for the site after Austinites voted to move the airport to Bergstrom. It was this entity that recommended the city hire a master planner – it chose ROMA Design Group – before choosing a master developer, which became Catellus. The task force also established Mueller's six overarching goals, which all the surrounding neighborhoods endorsed: fiscal responsibility, economic development, East Austin revitalization, diversity, sustainability, and compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods.

"I have never seen a project that is trying to do so many things in one place," says Pam Hefner who, as part of the city's Redevelopment Services Division, is the project manager for Mueller. "It's like the wish list of everything you'd want to achieve is being tried here. Some people have one particular area they're interested in, so they're not happy that we're not 100 percent in that area, but they may lack the perspective that we're trying to do many things."

Hefner emphasizes that her department is delivering Mueller to the entire city, not just those who live there. "They have a perspective," she says, "but we're looking out for the residents who aren't there yet, and the whole city – because this is a resource of the city."

That's a reference to the fact that Mueller is publicly owned land that's being sold, piece by piece, to master developer Catellus. Catellus, in turn, is charged with delivering a development that follows ROMA's design standards and that will ultimately return greater public benefit in the form of tax revenue, public parks and pools, and a vibrant neighborhood where previously there was only tarmac.

"It's not simply the residents who are currently here who 'own' Mueller, it's really the whole community that came together," says Harshman, who has served on the steering committee of the Mueller Neighbor­hood Association. "The developer, the city, and the surrounding neighborhoods all had an integral part in the design of the place."

Riding the Gap

And Mueller is still very dependent on the rest of Austin, at least at the ballot box. A section of land in the old airport is set aside for a school, which many in Mueller and surrounding neighborhoods had hoped would soon become an AISD elementary school. But the failure of Proposition 2 in the spring has put those dreams on hold (see "Getting Schooled," p.24).

Steve Peterson and Ellen Davis with Jackson (9) and Matthew (7)
Steve Peterson and Ellen Davis with Jackson (9) and Matthew (7)
Photo by Jana Birchum

Similarly, the original vision for Mueller included urban rail, which would connect the neighborhood and points north, along Berkman, to UT, the medical district, the Capitol, and Downtown. The development is as dense as it can be according to its current traffic impact analysis, which predicts the number of cars it will add to nearby roads. With the addition of rail, the remaining part can be built 20% more densely, on the assumption that residents can use rail instead of driving.

But rail, too, must be approved by voters, in a bond referendum to provide up to half the funding required for the first leg of urban rail. In the years since Mueller was conceived, a competing proposal to put the initial rail line on busy, already well-populated Guadalupe and Lamar streets has gathered momentum. Urban Rail Program Leader Kyle Keahey, who started work in April, says he plans to have a public discussion about which route is most appropriate and choose a direction before the election, which would probably be in late 2014.

One argument for choosing the route through Mueller is that the development's affordable housing component may increase its chances for receiving matching federal funds for rail. The master development agreement mandates that a quarter of the housing at Mueller is affordable, whether it's for sale or for rent. To qualify for the affordable program, buyers must make no more than 80% of Austin's median family income (80% is $58,550 for a family of four); affordable rental units must lease to tenants making 60% MFI or below.

Right now the highest concentration of affordability, serving residents with incomes down to 30% MFI, is at Wildflower Terrace, a senior housing complex off Manor Road. The single-family homes designated "affordable" are mixed in with the "market" rate houses throughout Mueller. It's nearly impossible to distinguish between them from the outside, a situation that pleases Catellus' Executive Vice President of Development Greg Weaver and master planner Jim Adams.

"Mueller has demonstrated that mixed-income communities can and do work," Adams says. He and his wife and partner Jana McCann created the master plan in the late Nineties as principals with ROMA Design Group and worked with Hefner and the city to hire Catellus. Adams and McCann spun off from San Francisco-based ROMA as McCann Adams Studio and in 2009 moved to Austin, where they live in Mueller. "Where else in Austin do we have $1 million homes sitting immediately adjacent to $150,000 townhouses like we do here? And it works just fine, there's no devaluing of the area – in fact, everything is appreciating."

Which is both good and bad. With regard to housing prices, Mueller is a victim of its own success. Home values have increased in proportion to the neighborhood's and Austin's popularity. While the price of designated-affordable homes is kept low for buyers who qualify, 75% of the homes in Muel­ler are subject to market conditions – which means they're getting more expensive.

Rachel Martin skates with Keira and Pumpkin.
Rachel Martin skates with Keira and Pumpkin.
Photo by Jana Birchum

The resulting difference between the most expensive affordable-program home and the least expensive market-rate home is called the "housing gap." If you don't qualify for the affordable program, whose most expensive home is in the high $100s to low $200s, and you can't afford the least expensive market-rate house, which starts in the mid-$200s, you can't buy in Mueller. It's a gap that prices out people who make at or just above MFI in Austin.

"What we tried to do up front was have a price point right above the affordable housing to try to offer something to everybody," Weaver says. "In the early days we had offerings at the low end. What's happened now is, with the market, that low end has drifted up, to where now there's the gap."

The solution everyone's talking about is "affordability by design" – smaller homes that cost less without being part of the official affordability program. Adams describes some new detached homes on lots 26 feet wide and 60 feet deep. He's working with builders on even smaller row houses – on lots 16 feet wide – clustered around a garden court. But he calls the challenge to fill the housing gap a continual struggle.

Of course, the affordability program at Mueller is about purchase price, not property taxes – and it has no influence over surrounding neighborhoods, except perhaps in driving up prices there as well. "Although I think the best thing we can do for affordability is increase the supply of housing, so more people have access to more homes, I worry about the side effects," says James Nortey, a Mueller resident and member of the Planning Commission. "Mueller will contribute to the property value increases of surrounding neighborhoods, and I don't know there's enough we can do about that. Although Mueller has a commitment to keep a quarter of its homes affordable – even as home values increase – there is nothing to keep homes in surrounding neighborhoods affordable."

A Neighborhood Culture

With so many goals to meet, Mueller is also watched by many eyes. Those include its neighborhood association, the Mueller Commission, city staff, and the property owners' association led by the developer.

The commission doesn't technically enforce the city's contract with Catellus – that's the job of Hefner and her team. But the seven-member group does serve as a monthly public forum to keep tabs on the development and discuss the fine points of the agreement, such as the inclusion of franchises in the "30% local" requirement (see "Going Local," p.22). If Hefner and her team are the "hard accountability" – the actual enforcers of the contract – the commission meetings offer soft accountability, a public venue for commissioners to question Catellus about its progress.

Brantley and Evan May (age 3) play at the playground.
Brantley and Evan May (age 3) play at the playground.
Photo by Jana Birchum

"I think the city should set up that kind of commission every time it does a significant public-private deal," says Jim Walker, a Cherrywood resident who serves on the Mueller Commission and has been a citizen leader in Mueller planning since 1995. "Any time there's a private entity that's getting any kind of deferred taxation or benefit, the public has the right to say, 'OK, we're going to put in place some oversight to make sure the community gets those benefits.'" Seaholm, the Green Water Treatment Plant, and the Domain all could have used a commission, Walker says.

Catellus has led several town hall meetings to collect Mueller and nearby neighborhood residents' feedback. Citizen leaders have also organized public forums for residents of Mueller and nearby neighborhoods. In late May, a "Mueller at Midcourse" forum attracted more than 100 people to discussions of education, affordable housing, and park and pool concerns. Having public meetings cuts down on misinformation and negative emotions, Walker says. "Big projects take a while. If people don't have a way to access the developer to ask questions, if you let that energy build up, it spills over," he says. "When you engage people on the front end, things don't take as long and there's less anxiety and hostility."

Lack of understanding can lead to criticism. "We always have to remember to revisit the history when we're answering questions," Hefner says. "At the beginning people moved here because they really bought into all the ideas and principles, and now there's people who move there because they just like the house, and they're not aware of why it is the way it is." It's up to Catellus and to pioneers like Harshman, Malcom, and Meyers to fill them in.

The label of "pioneer" has frequently applied to adventurers eager to settle lands that, in reality, were already inhabited. There were no such native peoples living in the empty runways of the former airport, but there were residents around the airport who are now feeling the impacts – including increased traffic and property taxes – the new development brings. But this is where the metaphor breaks down. The neighborhoods near Mueller were the force most responsible for the airport leaving, and for it being replaced not by a water park, an office complex, or a state airport, but a dense, sustainable, mixed-use urban neighborhood.

Mueller's redevelopment has taken a long time – on purpose. The task force Kinney chaired recommended Mueller should take 20 years to develop, a period that would inevitably span ups and downs in the economy. "In the downturns, we can see what we did wrong and learn from them and adjust as we go forward," he says.

Conditions have already changed dramatically since the six guiding principles were established in the late Nineties. Austin has become the 11th-largest city in the country. Property values and rents have skyrocketed, including in East Austin. "When we did [the redevelopment master plan] in 1997, developers told us 'you've got to be kidding, nobody is going to live on this property – this is east of I-35,'" master planner Jim Adams says. "They thought the land's highest and best use was industrial."

Reverberations

Even though the Mueller story is far from over, the development is already influencing other parts of Austin. "A lot of the ideas – mixed use, transit-oriented development, the emphasis on sustainability and affordability – are already being replicated," Kin­ney says. "They have found their way into city code, citywide."

The "next Mueller" doesn't really exist – the city doesn't have another 700-acre, centrally located tract of land. The 200-acre Colony Park project farther east is learning from Mueller, including making some decisions in deliberate contrast to Mueller. Jim Walker points to the Brackenridge Tract and Camp Mabry, where public-private partnerships could be employed to achieve similar dense neighborhoods with an affordability component.

Walker's advice is for neighborhoods near large pieces of public land to start planning now, as CARE and its late-Nineties successor the Mueller Neighborhoods Coali­tion did. "Neighbor­hoods should be getting together right now, before there's a developer, before they get a notice of a zoning change in the mail, and saying 'What would we want?'" he says. "One of the lessons learned from Mueller is, when you get community groups together sharing a vision before the developer gets there, you get a chance to have something good that's long lasting.

"City shaping takes time – it always will," Walker says. "We fail a bit when we look at development projects as somehow having a finite point to them. They never stop. You can pound the last nail, but now you have a neighborhood that's going to keep going."

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