Building From Scratch
It Takes a City and a State to Raise a Village
The notion of turning a post-aviation Mueller into a progressive "urban village" -- mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, green, diverse, affordable, sustainable -- was first advanced by the Mueller-area neighborhoods themselves back in the Manor phase of the Move-It Era, when it was an idea genuinely before its time. By 1996, when the city appointed the RMMA Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force to kick off the New Mueller effort in earnest, others too had heard of New Urbanism, but there was nonetheless serious talk of turning Mueller into a corporate HQ site, a giant job-training center or college campus, a vast series of ballfields, even an amusement park -- or just carving it up and handing space to whomever wanted it.
The Process and Goals Task Force put the kibosh on that. In the words of the Redevelopment and Reuse Plan, "The Task Force challenged the city to create a district that would be a model for responsible urban development and influence the form and pattern of growth as it enters the new millennium." So the New Mueller was Smart Growth when Smart Growth wasn't cool.
Now, Smart Growth is gospel, and the consultants hired by the city to turn the Task Force's vision into an actual master plan -- San Francisco-based Roma Design Group, specifically its principal Jim Adams -- know it by heart (see "Goals" list at right). Even if they had been heathens, though, Roma has been both aided and shadowed by a City Council subcommittee, a focus group of neighborhood reps (including this reporter), a council-appointed advisory group chaired by architect Jim Robertson, and city-contracted ombudsman Girard Kinney, the architect and longtime Mueller neighbor who led that neighborhood effort of 15 years ago, chaired the Process and Goals Task Force, and has generally been the sage of the New Mueller.
Then there's the state, in the person of the General Services Commission, which will take possession of 282 of the site's 719 acres soon after the airport closes. This land was basically extorted from Austin by the Legislature (though the state is paying for it) after a fit of good-ol'-boy pique by former House Speaker Billy Clayton, which is hardly the best way to get your model development started. But the GSC is either very good at playing along or, more likely, has been genuinely bitten by the NewUrb bug.
While the state is not bound by anything Roma prescribes for their land, their own planning consultant -- Jim Susman, the "S" of STG, among the busiest of local firms and, one may have thought, way too sexy for the utility-minded GSC -- delivered what he says is a near-duplicate of Roma's design. (The differences mostly have to do with phasing, apparently, since the state's buildout timelines are faster than the city's.) Both Adams and Susman see the state's land as part of the whole -- "an integral part of the community, contributing to its identity and vitality," in the Roma plan's words.
At this point, as frayed as city-state relations are, the New Mueller still needs the state and its money to survive and thrive economically, and all involved know, at least tacitly, that the project presumes much faith in the Legislature, which will have to sign off and pony up every two years. Without the Lege committing, in specific terms and for many years, to a progressive planning model that has historically been wholly alien to its values, the New Mueller urban-village concept becomes a shaky proposition.
Building a Town
Thirteen of those Town Center blocks (though none of the Town Square blocks) belong to the state, accounting for well over half of the expected five million square feet of state office space at the New Mueller. The Roma plan pumps hard for the state to lease up to 10% of its square footage (as provided by federal law), presumably on the ground floors, to non-state users, i.e., retailers. Where will all these people park? In early phases, there will have to be surface parking, but the final-buildout version envisions strategically placed shared parking garages in the Town Center.
North along 51st Street are "urban campus" centers, two for the state to occupy and one for the city (at I-35) to use or sell, perhaps to the next high-tech coquette we want to lure off our aquifer. These effectively, and perhaps intentionally, fill the role of conventional office parks, absorbing the state's inexorable need for cheap space and surface parking. It is only the design standards and guidelines set forth by Roma -- pedestrian accessibility, ground-floor uses, "orchard parking" with lots of trees, planning for future infill -- that make these campuses "urban," though they do, on paper, sound much nicer than what one fears they actually may be.
On the south side of the Town Center are two residential neighborhoods which, along with the multi-family in the Town Center itself, will bring between 2,000 and 3,000 new dwelling units into the area. (Yes, there will be a new school to go with them.) While this number includes apartments, townhouses, and row houses, the bulk of the acreage will go to single-family homes -- what the planners, adding a new term to our local lexicon, call "yard houses."
The preponderance of yard houses -- albeit on lots smaller than the Austin average -- supports two goals of both the neighbors and the Process and Goals Task Force: They promote home ownership, and they blend into the surrounding neighborhoods. They also are more likely, here in a city where a "small" new house is at least 1,800 square feet, to actually get built and sold than will either the traditionally urban (co-op apartments) or trendy NewUrban (mixed-use "shop houses") residential products contemplated by the plan.
Mapping Transit Routes
Connecting all of the above are, of course, new streets, including a central transit corridor stretching from Pershing Drive (the current airport entrance) to Berkman and served by light rail -- a routing that has not yet been agreed to by Capital Metro. This and others are fairly major roads for what is in theory a transit-oriented development. Roma notes that the New Mueller's density "should not occur" (italics theirs) without transit and ped/bike improvements -- and even the Texas Department of Transportation agrees with them. But the Roma team was required to deliver a plan that didn't make the currently horrific traffic around the site even worse.
A point of some worry is that the all-important traffic impact analysis (TIA) for the entire site was conducted by the GSC's team, not the city's. Indeed, that TIA has yet to be seen in its entirety by either the city or its citizenry (though Roma refers to it as an appendix to its document), since it's attached to the GSC's budget request, which must make its protocol-prescribed Legislative rounds before it hits public view. We do know, though, that the TIA estimates 128,000 peak-hour vehicle trips a day at full buildout -- a lot more than the airport currently generates -- and that most of that load will be on different routes than the ones used now by airport travelers.
We also know that the TIA presumes -- along with effective demand management (flex-scheduling, carpools, etc.) on the part of the state and other New Mueller employers -- millions of dollars in improvements to Airport Boulevard and 51st Street. And one of the recommendations on the table is for a new I-35 "flyover" exit ramp that connects straight to the site, bypassing the congested access road intersections.
And, because this is Austin and the project is progressive, there are parks, greenways, trails, water features, and "paseos." A total of 133 acres of the site (more than five times the size of the Triangle) is to remain green. All this work presumes the total demolition of the airport in its current form, although a campaign is underfoot to save, perhaps in a new location, the historic hangar off Airport Boulevard. The Roma plan discourages any interim uses that aren't compatible with the final vision for the site, and the city has refused so far to consider any requests to use "surplus" airport land.
What Could Have Been?
You often hear Austinites talk about "politics" and "planning" as if the two are different; in reality, both are the art of the possible. And much of the New Mueller plan is born of obvious compromise. If the state were willing to simply sign on to the Roma plan; if it had been willing to disperse its holdings in smaller parcels throughout the site; if Austin's real estate market could plausibly support a truly urban residential project; and if we had a better transit and traffic-management system -- then we could have a textbook New Urbanist showpiece. What we got instead is a real-world NewUrb showpiece; down the road, as the local market becomes more accepting of Smart Growth, the plan can be tweaked.
But some are disappointed that the Process and Goals Task Force's vision of a truly model development -- at least for here in the Great State -- has not emerged with total theoretical purity, given the unique opportunity of a huge urban greenfield. So far, the most vocal critic has been developer Rob Dickson, the leader of the Austin chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who has bluntly inserted himself into the New Mueller process as well as other city planning whingdings. And there was also a mysterious letter to the city, signed by a number of local enviro and neighborhood poobahs even though no one seems to know who wrote it, taking the Roma plan to task for not being dense enough to absorb future Austin growth.
Given the criticism the city has taken for the CSC deal, based on the same "best we can do" premise, this is all understandable. Of course, an underdeveloped City Hall Annex is just an annoyance -- and one we've lived with for 24 years -- while an abandoned and unused former airport is a bona fide threat to its community. The negative impact of the "void in East Austin" (in Roma's words) that RMMA has long been will only get worse until something else goes there. And when you've seen scores of worthwhile civic master plans end up as doorstops and booster seats, as many old-time Austin activists have, you may feel that holding out for something better than the Roma plan is not an option.
Whether the city takes Roma's plan as is or tweaks it, time is of the essence for several reasons. There are hundreds of acres of land around the airport for which there is no master plan, all of which will be ripe for redevelopment. And it's hard to tell, say, a rental-car company that they can't build Project X on their site because it'll clash with the residential neighborhood that, maybe, will go in next door someday in the far future. And if the city wants the Legislature to stay focused on a progressive-planning goal, it has to keep up with the state's pace of development.
But most importantly, and most simply, the longer nothing happens at the New Mueller, the harder it will be to get something happening. "There are marketing hurdles that will have to be crossed, and it'll be easier to cross them if there's an immediate positive image of activity on site -- even if it's just demolition," says RMMA Advisory Group chair Jim Robertson. His group, charged with making recommendations about the plan to the council, has made its number one suggestion, "Act swiftly to implement the Master Plan."
Managing the Plan
Having a plan adopted before RMMA closes would be a good start. A better start, in the view of the Process and Goals Task Force, would have been to create the entity that will manage and develop the New Mueller project. (The city has hired a property manager to oversee RMMA in the interim.) Back in 1996, the task force recommended a "dependent non-profit" model -- the same sort of development corporation that's been discussed for downtown for years, and a large-scale model of what a lot of Eastside neighborhoods use to create affordable housing.
After studying several different models and scenarios, each presuming varying degrees of direct city involvement, Roma has made the same recommendation, which is no great surprise. The model cited by Roma is the same one cited in the latest downtown discussions -- San Diego's Center City Development Corporation. Of course, city staff and downtown advocates have been floating the idea of an Austin CCDC for seven years, only to bump up into council resistance and incumbent downtown rivalries. There is, indeed, now talk of creating a single entity for both downtown and the airport.
Even when the relevant stakeholders all agree on the need for such an agency's existence -- as they do at Mueller, and as they did on East 11th and 12th streets -- creating and running a stand-alone entity, independent of city government, with decision-making powers over public land and funds, is a minefield -- witness the long, strange saga of the Austin Revitalization Authority.
"There will be politically difficult issues to tackle; there will be some lively debate over what the makeup of an implementation authority's board would be," says Robertson, whose advisory group will likely recommend that the city create a new citizen Mueller Commission and insist on citizen representation on the development entity's actual board. "It would be weird to have collected citizen input about Mueller for 10 years and then, when the rubber meets the road, to dispense with all citizen oversight."
That, of course, presumes that the citizens at large will start paying attention to the New Mueller once the rubber meets the tarmac. "I'm not sure what John Q. Public thinks about what's going on right now, when it's in the hands of the so-called professionals," says Robertson. "From this point forward, though, we will have problems if more people don't get involved in the coming months."
Next week, "Corner to Corner" examines neighborhood issues in relation to Mueller's Redevelopment and Reuse Plan.