Naked City

Lights! Camera! Redevelopment!

Robert Mueller Airport's now-vacant hangars
Robert Mueller Airport's now-vacant hangars (Photo By John Anderson)

Movie stars! That's the ticket! Suddenly, the daunting task of redeveloping Robert Mueller Municipal Airport has gotten a whole lot sexier. But did it get easier?

Over the weekend, director Richard Linklater went public with his proposal, backed by other luminaries of the local movie posse (Sandra Bullock, Mike Judge, Bongo Boy, etc.) to convert some of Mueller's now-vacant hangars into sound studios and other film production facilities. In Linklater's test-tube vision, a nonprofit collective would manage the spaces and rent them to individual productions.

Many people who matter like this idea, including Mayor Kirk Watson, who envisions "a lot of creative energy" turning Mueller and its environs into a job magnet and pumping up the vision of a SmartGrown (mixed-use pedestrian-friendly higher-density) urban village on the old airport site. (Contrary to what you may have read in another newspaper, nobody is talking about turning the entire airport into a studio complex.) And the list of people who matter includes the neighborhoods that surround Mueller, without whom there would likely be no "vision" or "plan" for redeveloping the old airport. The urban-village concept, which is the official city vision at this point, goes back at least 15 years and is very much the neighborhoods' baby.

As a consequence, the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition (MNC) actually gets to weigh in on ideas like the studio proposal, and Linklater duly visited the neighbors before the plan hit the papers. As it happens, the neighbors have long speculated that filmmaking would be a boon to the New Mueller and its surrounds. The 1996 report of the neighbor-driven Mueller Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force -- the ur-text of the current planning effort -- specifically addresses sound studios as a potential reuse.

So everyone likes movie stars. What may prove problematic is preserving the hangars themselves. The whole question of interim use at Mueller -- that is, what to do with existing infrastructure during the years, if not decades, that the New Mueller plan is being built out -- has vexed the neighbors, the city, the official RMMA Redevelopment Advisory Group appointed by the City Council, and the city's consultants, San Francisco-based Roma Design Group.

Two years ago, when the city's New Mueller planning efforts began in earnest, Roma concluded that there was no good reason to keep most of the existing buildings (except, possibly, those with historic interest) on the site; the cost of maintaining the hangars, terminal, etc. would be higher than the market would pay for their lease, and the uses they'd accommodate (mostly warehousing) were inconsistent with the urban-village vision. So most everything was going to get torn down.

Back then, of course, the state of Texas was the New Mueller's largest prospective tenant, and its money -- the purchase price for its 282 acres of the 711 at Mueller -- was going to pay for the demolition. (The hangars that Linklater desires were on the state's portion of the site and would have been torn down straightaway, regardless of what the city planned to do on its side.) Now that the state is gone, unless money falls into the city's lap from unknown sources, the hangars and other buildings will be around for a while, and interim uses are more attractive than decaying, vacant metal sheds. (Roma and the city are currently reworking the Mueller plan to account for the state's absence.)

Linklater's is the first proposal for private interim use to be seriously entertained by the city. Many of the old administrative buildings, particularly along Airport Boulevard, are already being reused by city departments, which are currently in a space crunch that's been made worse by the loss of the Municipal Annex to the future CSC/City Hall complex. While many neighbors objected to even city departments -- and their noisy trucks and traffic-generating employees -- moving into Mueller space, they could at least feel confident that city tenants would eventually go away.

Private uses are another matter, especially given that "interim" might mean 15 years. (Remember that Liberty Lunch was an interim user of city space.) The MNC and city have agreed on guidelines for private interim uses that, basically, call for such operations themselves to be consistent with the Roma plan. Since the MNC leadership has already, if very tentatively, bought into Linklater's proposal, that clears one big hurdle.

And since Roma is at the drawing board right now, it's possible that -- if there's enough will and muscle applied on Linklater's behalf -- the hangars can be integrated into the final plan, and thus preserved as permanent fixtures. That just leaves the next 25 people who covet space at Mueller (and there are probably at least that many, including four churches so far, AISD's athletics department, and various high-tech concerns), and who will cry foul if the movie stars get what they see as special treatment.

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