Mulling Over Mueller

What could you do with 711 acres? Consider this -- Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, small and poky as it is, is 6.5 times larger than Vatican City. So the occupants of the New Mueller have enough room to dominate the temporal world, define the shape of art and architecture, and commune directly with God, and still include free surface parking and a new Randalls. On both sides of Mueller's fence lie thousands of acres, and thousands of people, whose future with the New Mueller as a neighbor will be much different, and probably much better, than their present. So the road to this future -- the planning, disposition and development for re-use of the site after 1999, when the airport goes dark -- is attractive to many Austinites. "In my 30 years in Austin, there's never been a situation like this one," says José Martinez, the Austin leader of the city's New Mueller consulting team. "Because of this, people have great expectations, and rightly so."

People also have misgivings, though, of equal greatness. We have, after all, been told before that RMMA would disappear, only to see the alternative airport options collapse. Even now, with cargo planes actually landing at the unfinished Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the inevitability of Mueller's closure seems impossible for Austin, or at least for Austin lawyers and lobbyists, to accept.

First we had the State Aircraft Pooling Board, whose Legislative hijinks allowed the state to extort an option on up to 40% of the Mueller site (up to 282 acres, or 2.5 Vaticans) in exchange for the Board's relocating its tiny fleet to prestigious and plush digs at Bergstrom, rather than condemning Mueller and keeping it open for its own use. Upon this land, the state plans up to 2.9 million square feet of office space that could form the core of the New Mueller.

Now, with the imminent shutdown of the Austin Executive Air Park, speculation runs rampant that the city's private pilots -- and their national lobbymonster, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) -- will sue to keep Mueller open, which the AOPA has done successfully in other states, and/or that Southwest Airlines will decide to keep flying into Mueller rather than Bergstrom. But these are unlikely options at best.

In the AOPA's case, its successful strong-arm efforts -- such as keeping open Chicago's Meigs Field -- came with the help of government partners like the State of Illinois, and now that the State of Texas has cut its Mueller deal, the list of AOPA friends in high places has gotten kinda short. As for Southwest, its entrenchment at Dallas Love Field was controversial enough to spawn an act of Congress to prevent its recurrence there -- the celebrated, and now perforated, Wright Amendment. If SWA were to repeat itself at Mueller, against the wishes of the city, the state, the FAA, the Austin business community, and the travelers who eat its peanuts, there wouldn't be a lot of LUV in the room.

There is a lot of love, and buzz, and work attached to the New Mueller effort right now, and the Pooling Board saga shows the lengths to which the City of Austin will go to ensure that Mueller closes on schedule. "One of our biggest challenges is getting the message across that this will happen," says city planner Kimberly Miller. "There really is a lot of discomfort, because for 15 years people have been told it's going to move, and they still aren't convinced." Opportunities and Constraints The Mueller redevelopment team will do most of the convincing. On the ground in Austin, Martinez -- longtime economic-development specialist for the city, and more recently the first executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance -- is marshaling troops that include PR specialists, infrastructure experts, and urban designers. The heaviest lifting, though, will be done by the obligatory out-of-town consultants, Roma Design Group of San Francisco, who have an impressive portfolio of military base conversions and inner-city "brownfield" redevelopments.

Mueller presents issues common to both scenarios, but in Roma's view, Austin is better-positioned than many of their other clients. "As far as base reuse has gone, one of our major problems has been finding a catalyst that gets the project going," says Roma's Jim Adams, its principal on the Mueller project. "In the State of Texas, Austin has a major user who's willing to pay up front for their land. That's a powerful generator, both of cash flow and investment you'll need for the new infrastructure, and of interest among other developers in the market."

"And as far as inner-city redevelopment goes," Adams continues, "a major difference here is that the site isn't contaminated, or at least not nearly to the scale we've encountered on other major projects. That's a big plus in Austin's favor." (What contamination there is at Mueller -- mostly from spilled fuel -- is apparently limited to topsoil and is easily dealt with. This puts Austin in better stead than Denver, whose notorious woes in opening a new airport have now been compounded by contamination at the old one.)

Roma's contract with the city involves three phases, the first now nearing completion -- the preparation of an "opportunities and constraints" report, laying out what really might be possible on Mueller's 711 acres. As part of this phase, Adams and his fellow Bay Area consultant, economic-development expert Jim Mashbach, came to Austin in mid-October to meet and hold focus groups with the city, the state, the neighborhoods around Mueller, and the development community. (In my alter ego as president of the Swede Hill NA, I attended the neighborhood focus group; although the Mueller project's impact on my area will be fairly indirect, all the neighborhoods bordering MLK were invited to participate.)

There will be two more visits with a similar agenda, one after the new year to review actual design and structural concepts, and a third in the spring to look at the draft plan, set to be presented in May. Beyond these focus-group meetings, the city council is appointing a new redevelopment task force, slated to meet monthly. "The idea is to give Roma as much feedback as we can," says Miller. "The focus groups, especially, serve as a conversation between the consultants and knowledgeable people."

New Urbanism 101

Indeed, the members of the focus groups, particularly the neighborhoods conclave, are so knowledgeable they've already done some of Roma's work. The starting point for the current effort is the report of the council-appointed RMMA Goals Task Force, presented in early 1996, which defined the principles the community wanted to see guiding the re-use process.

The Goals Task Force was dominated by local neighborhood leaders (several of whom are architects) who had fought to move Mueller for years, and who as far back as 1987 -- in the Manor era -- had crafted a planning vision for the site. In fact, the chair of the Goals Task Force, Girard Kinney, has since been hired by the city to watchdog the current process and make sure the goals are honored.

There's little interest so far in deviating from that text. "I think the Goals Task Force really did a lot to build consensus for a set of objectives that we also support," says Roma's Adams. "Our work so far has confirmed what they said in more detail; we're satisfied that the market in Austin is strong enough to support the types of uses they wanted to see. There's no fatal flaw to their concept."

Their concept, simply stated, is New Urbanism 101. (Indeed, one of the early aspirants for the contract awarded to Roma was NewUrb godfather Andres Duany.) The New Mueller would be mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, and transit-oriented, incorporating ample open space, linkages (or, if necessary, buffers) between the site and its surrounding neighborhoods, attention to architectural standards, and a range of facilities for residents and commercial tenants of all socio-economic strata.

"There's strong agreement on these goals because all the stakeholders -- the neighborhoods, the developers, and the public entities -- know we need a more compact city," says Martinez. "The site is right on the freeway, right on the proposed Red Line (the first leg of Capital Metro's light-rail system), surrounded by strong and viable neighborhoods to the north, east, south, and west. And so far, those folks want this site to be higher in density than what's in their own neighborhoods. So everyone sees the potential gains."

State of Suspicion

The devil is in the details, which is why the city needs a big consulting effort -- $800,000 is budgeted for 1997-98 -- to explain what we already know. "The stage at which the Goals Task Force ended its work was very broad," Miller says. "Those are principles Roma's working to implement, but [the task force] didn't get to the nitty-gritty about who will bring it about, how it will be financed, or what the land-use plan will actually be."

The devil du jour is the State's role in the New Mueller. The words "up to" were carefully inserted in the state's memorandum-of-understanding with the city; while it could buy "up to" 282 acres, it doesn't have to, and Roma would apparently like them to do otherwise. During the neighborhood focus group, Roma's graphics showed how the state could build a project of equal square footage in only 141 acres, mostly through more liberal use of structured, rather than surface, parking, in better keeping with the high-density NewUrb vision.

The state might also elect to develop several small parcels, or claim its full 282 acres even if its program doesn't require it. (Legislation prevents using more than 10% of state land for non-state uses, but it doesn't preclude holding onto land for later development.) These would be less popular options, and so far the city and Roma feel satisfied that the state will, as promised, plan alongside Roma, create a compatible site, and generally play ball. However, given the hard times Austin is currently having with state development, many of you, and several of the neighborhood leaders in the focus group, were not convinced.

Still, the state brings something valuable to the Mueller effort -- a lot of money. As Adams notes above, the front-end cash flow from the state's land purchase, to be consummated immediately upon RMMA's closure, goes a long way toward making other improvements. In addition, the state appears willing to help develop a site-wide infrastructure, which on 711 acres is no small task.

Beyond the Boundaries

Other than feeling queasy about dancing with the state, the neighborhoods around Mueller, as elsewhere, are probably most concerned with infrastructure. Traffic is already abysmal in the area, and while the New Mueller traffic patterns will no doubt be different, the volume may not be any less than the 50,000 daily trips currently generated by the airport. This makes the transit/pedestrian/mixed-use stuff all the more attractive, but those come with their own costs -- internal roadways and trails, inevitable improvements on surrounding roadways, and perhaps a spur off the Red Line into the site. (The current tracks lie west of Airport Boulevard.)

Beyond transportation, water/wastewater -- Mueller is served, or underserved, by the notoriously bad East Austin sewerage -- and stormwater improvements are high-dollar sore points, daunting enough to keep open the chance that the city will punt these improvements to future developers, even though a pre-improved site would be far more marketable. "If the city decides to improve the site and then sell it," says Miller, "we're looking at a whole lot of work and the possibility of phases."

Phased development is likely in any event, given Mueller's size, and the prospect of the site being dark for 20 years scares many of its neighbors. As a result, much has been made of finding short-term users for the existing buildings on the site -- for example, using the terminal building as an exhibition space. However, keeping the terminal open would, according to Roma, lose money for the city, and most of the other built space (primarily hangars and their attached offices) presents marginal market potential at best.

There's also a lot of soon-to-be-empty land outside the Mueller fence -- by some estimates, as much as 250 acres, now devoted to shuttle parking, car rentals, and the like. Roma has also been tasked with suggesting what to do with this property, even though the city has little power to impose any specific land-use strategies on these private owners. "But a good plan goes beyond its boundaries," Adams says.

A possible approach would be a zoning overlay district, intended to keep properties currently zoned AZ -- aviation-related businesses -- from quickly becoming converted into unpleasant or unfriendly speculative projects. Miller notes that "Austin already has more zoning overlays than any city in Texas, but there will be a lot of holes in the fabric around the airport, and we need ways to fill them. It's important that all the new development -- both in Mueller and around it -- be integrated with the city as a whole."

Take Time, Do It Right

This sets up a bigger question, perhaps impossible to address with a formal plan. Adams holds that "most of the area surrounding Mueller ultimately won't change that much when the airport closes," and there's some truth to that. But take a look at Airport Boulevard to see how complicated Mueller's current effect is.

For a commercial corridor of its length, Airport Boulevard is remarkably consistent from end to end in the (generally low) density, scale, and character of its development. At the ends -- north past Highland Mall and south of MLK -- that's because the boulevard is flanked with light-industrial development, the railroad tracks, and/or residential areas with more than their share of social burdens. In the middle, though, Mueller itself, and north of that the Mueller flight path, are the only real downward forces on what would otherwise be very appealing real estate, wedged among some of Austin's most expensive central-city neighborhoods.

Once the planes are gone to Bergstrom, the 711 acres of land at Robert Mueller Airport will beome the latest parel of land the state will offer for development. Area neighborhoods such as Windsor Park, Pecan Springs, Seabrook, MLK/Airport, Cherrywood, Delwood, Hancock, and Ridgetop would no doubt prefer a transit/pedestrian/mixed use plan that does not snarl their streets with traffic.

Once Mueller is gone, it won't be long before developers start conceiving big office complexes and apartment communities where now sits the Tamale House. And further south, too, as Airport becomes the direct road from the booming north to the Bergstrom airport. Conversely, Manor Road and MLK Boulevard, freed from their current identity as The Way to the Airport, will likewise see development interest that doesn't exist now (especially with the concentration of land zoned for aviation-related businesses along both). This naturally complicates the task of integrating the New Mueller with its surroundings, since those surroundings could themselves be transformed at a faster pace than Mueller itself.

That is, unless the real estate market heads south, but right now Austin's economy is strong enough to absorb all this new property. Which means Austin can afford to be picky and controlling about land-use decisions around Mueller. "Between having a major user [the state] in place, and having a very strong economy, the community can afford to be somewhat selective with what happens to the site," notes Adams. "Other communities are desperate to get anything on a redevelopment site; Austin probably doesn't have enough land for all the options that currently exist." In addition to the state, other users have put in requests (none as yet granted) for Mueller land that total more than 600 acres. "It'll require a judicious approach to determine what the optimal uses will be."

"Judicious" well describes this slow-and-steady process -- devoted at every turn to ensuring buy-in from those who buy -- toward the New Mueller, which is actually kind of refreshing in a city whose approach to revitalization vacillates between ramrod jobs and ceaseless gridlock. The Mueller way may take time, but consider that it took nearly 300 years to build the Vatican. And those developers learned from their consultants -- the saints and angels -- that good things come to those who wait.

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