Taking Off

Balancing Priorities

So the mantra of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition may well be: "Do it now." This risks, however, running afoul of other neighborhoods in the city, and other progressive constituencies, some of whom have already started to fuss that the New Mueller plan is not sufficiently dense and SmartGrown to accommodate their needs and interests. "We have to keep balancing what other neighborhoods feel about this project," says Walker. "There's what we in the backyard have in mind, and then there's what the rest of Austin needs and wants as a whole."

Part of this concern is simple competition for scarce resources. For one, there are no dedicated staff at present to do planning work on the surrounding neighborhoods to address the mind-boggling land-use issues that will arise off-site. (There are only two full-time employees dedicated to the on-site project itself.) The city's Neighborhood Planning Program offers an option, but many neighborhoods are eager to claim the few spots available, and "we need to be careful not to push for treatment that other neighborhoods don't have access to," Walker notes.

Photo of Jim Walker

Jim Walker, Cherrywood Neighborhood Association

photograph by Jana Birchum

There's also the matter of paying for the New Mueller's infrastructure, which needs to be in place quick-like-a-bunny if the project is to move forward. From the point the state entered the project, it's been assumed that the money the state pays the city for those 282 acres -- an as-yet-undetermined sum -- will be the down payment on the roads, sewers, detention ponds, and power lines for the new village. But that check, when it's written, will go straight into the city's general fund, and ain't no telling what can happen to it then, especially when city councilmembers use "Mueller" and "new sources of revenue" in the same sentence.

That is, if there's much of a check at all. Though the city vigorously denies it, there's a persistent rumor that the city wants to trade some of the Mueller land for the state's Hobby Building -- a key locale in the CSC/City Hall deal. Both the Mueller neighbors and the City Council-appointed RMMA Redevelopment Advisory Group have opposed any "commingling" of Mueller funds in the strongest possible terms.

All this points, in the neighbors' view, to the need for not only citizen involvement on whatever development entity -- probably a nonprofit corporation -- builds the New Mueller, but for a permanent city-appointed commission (you could call it the Ex-Airport Advisory Board) to oversee the project, and represent the needs of its environs as they are transformed, for the next two decades. "It's incredibly important to maintain a citizens' oversight mechanism over the project right now," says Girard Kinney, who has basically shepherded the New Mueller project since its roots back in 1985, and who is currently employed by the city to provide institutional memory in the project. "That's the only hope of keeping the issue of surrounding land uses and off-site impacts alive. There needs to be a coalition of neighbors and other stakeholders who have been charged by the council to stay with the program."

Originally, the city's request-for-proposal to prospective New Mueller planners -- an RFP drafted off the recommendations of the RMMA Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force, which Kinney chaired and on which Krivoniak and other neighbors served -- called for the consultants to deal with off-site redevelopment issues. For various reasons, though, the scope of the project was narrowed, and by the time San Francisco-based Roma Design Group -- authors of the current Redevelopment and Reuse Plan -- got the gig, this task was dropped from the menu.

Neighborhood Watchdogs

So, though the city's own planners are not clueless about the issue, it will now largely fall to the neighbors to monitor all the redevelopment and rezoning expected for the currently depressed Mueller environs, and to oppose projects that are incompatible with the New Mueller, with their own neighborhoods, or both. "All we can do is be smart and anticipate and mitigate what we can, before we're saying, 'Aw, gee, we should have...'" Walker says. "I think this is a great opportunity for the city to improve its process, and involve the neighborhoods, and harness the creativity that Smart Growth is going to demand."

Map of Mueller area neighborhoods

These neighborhoods bordering Robert Mueller Municipal Airport want to be involved in the redevelopment process.

When you consider that there are hundreds of acres near Mueller that are specifically zoned, right now, as "aviation-related," you get a feeling for the task. And there are plenty of businesses that don't have that special zoning that nonetheless depend on the airport -- even if they're not all that close, like the "airport hotels" by Highland Mall. And then there are hundreds of acres of property whose use is not dependent on, but is nonetheless determined by, the airport -- for example, everything in the Mueller flight path through Hyde Park, Skyview, and Ridgetop, west of I-35. Right now, however, the city only has the time and staff to focus on the first of these three categories.

Clearly, much of what happens to the rental-car and shuttle-parking lots, or to the remnant tenements and shacks of the Flight Path, will be an improvement, and nobody is really interested in tying the market's hands. "We're already seeing changes now," says Krivoniak. "This will be an interesting real estate year around here, as people realize the airport is really going to close. But I figure prices and activity will go up over here all year, and then it will sink in that we don't really know what's going to happen, and it will slow down until we see something happening on the site."

And locations like the airport hotel zone offer great opportunities -- as Walker says, "UT is looking for student housing like nobody's business, and the hotels can easily become dormitories." But as I noted last week, it's hard to tell someone that what they want to build today is incompatible with what may be in place 20 years from now, unless you have some guidelines for the process. That is, after all, why they call it "planning."

What would the Mueller "impact area" be? (To determine this, Kinney and the Goals Task Force advocated a comprehensive survey of all property owners and tenants in a vast area around the Mueller fence.) What types of property would be affected? (Walker's current focus is on the airport-related and vacant properties.) Can the city decree some uses to be "interim," so that landowners can make a living while the New Mueller comes to fruition without bollixing up the plan? All these questions have been discussed for years and are still far from resolved.

But again, if the impact of the New Mueller were guaranteed to be negative, we would be telling an entirely different story here. What motivates the neighbors to keep pushing is not their fear of the post-Mueller future, but their hope. "Ideally, there will be even more of a sense of history and place than there is now, which will galvanize the surrounding neighborhoods," Walker says. "As this new neighborhood comes into being near us, it should and could make the neighbors that are here now more involved with their own futures."

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