Naked City

Mueller Time

So, you've got this old airport. And you want to build a new little town there. But you can't do it yourself, because you're a big, slow city. So you're out looking for a relationship. Who would be your ideal partner?

We're closer to finding out, as the city of Austin gets ready to publish its first "Airport Seeking Developer" personal ad. That would be the request for qualifications (RFQ) for potential master developers to implement the adopted redevelopment plan for the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The RFQ should hit the streets around March 22, and the city's appointed Mueller Redevelopment and Implementation Commission will meet on Fat Tuesday -- its third meeting this month -- to discuss the draft presented by the city's Mueller consultants, San Francisco-based Roma Design Group.

Naturally, since the New Mueller is a 709-acre, 20-year, maybe-$500-million-or-more project, the city wants to choose carefully. Maybe. Or maybe the city just wants to deal Mueller away as quickly as possible -- perhaps to Stratus Properties, which would also advance the ball on protecting Barton Springs. Or maybe we should hold a potential developer to even higher standards than the RMMA plan would strictly require. And so on.

All of which has made the issuance of an RFQ -- in a typical city a matter of routine procedure -- into a political act, shaped by public and private pressures from constituents who see, or claim to see, the Mueller master plan as a dream, a starting point, or the gospel. Strict policy hygiene would call for an RFQ to elaborate the minimum you'll accept in a dance partner. The subsequent request for proposals (RFP), issued to the handful of most promising RFQ respondents, is where you go for the ideal.

According to the Roma team -- in particular Jim Musbach of Economic and Planning Systems, Inc., the Mueller project's lead economic advisor -- a Mueller master developer should score well on these five criteria, included in the draft RFQ:

° "Experience in developing large scale, publicly owned real estate assets." This should guarantee that teams advancing to the RFP stage are led only by the first-class national big-boy players.

° "Strong financial resources." Simply preparing the Mueller site for development may cost as much as $100 million in constant dollars, and the city would like to pay for as little of that as possible. They also want to know that a developer can hang with this project for a couple of decades, though with an economy like this one, producing such evidence may be a tall order.

° "Development experience associated with the specific land uses programmed for the site." That would include most every kind of use -- residential, office, retail, mixed-use town center -- and since few developers have such eclectic bases, the eventual master developer will almost surely be a joint venture of single-use specialists.

° "Demonstrated understanding of the project, City vision, goals, and key issues." That presumes the city understands its own project, etc., which hasn't been a given over the last three months. But the RFQ notes that a "clear community vision has emerged for the RMMA site," and goes on to reference "the City's vision of a compact pedestrian-oriented mixed-use district, integrated with surrounding neighborhoods."

° "Ability to provide specified master developer tasks." These include pulling permits, marketing the New Mueller, doing demolition, building the backbone infrastructure, and developing the parcels themselves, or making them available to third-party developers.

That's all simple enough; the real magillah, not yet established, is how the city intends to score respondents on these criteria. Naturally, the Mueller Commission, not to mention Council Member Beverly Griffith and her partisans, will be casting eagle eyes to make sure that the team that includes Stratus Properties, which has already announced its intent to respond to the RFQ, doesn't get scored in some way that fails the smell test. "Even if it's not true," says Mueller Commission chair Jim Walker, "the appearance of a back-room deal is the last thing the council should want."

So far, the Mueller Commission has done its job -- to insert, in some still-not-all-that-defined manner, community oversight and input into this process -- without too many theatrics. Commission members would, ultimately, like the city to be a little more finicky, structuring the RFQ to ferret out developers with track records in affordable housing, open space creation, and other New Mueller social goals not typically rewarded by the market.

Indeed, the commission has grappled with how, if at all, to privilege master-developer aspirants who can improve upon the community-goal targets called for in the RMMA plans. The RFQ notes, or concedes, that one of the jobs of a master developer will be to "refine the plan and development program," but Mueller advocates want to make sure that we get a developer who'll refine the project in the public interest. That may be too much to extract out of the dozen or two first-round respondents with an RFQ, but short-listed candidates for an RFP -- and certainly the team the city sits down to negotiate with after the RFP -- should feel public pressure to do more than make money off of this huge city asset.

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Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, Mueller redevelopment, Stratus Properties, Roma Design Group, Jim Musbach, Jim Walker, Beverly Griffith

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