On a Short Lease
They say people still go to Robert Mueller Municipal Airport to catch flights. But at the current rate of amnesia, a whole generation of Austinites will have forgotten -- or will have never learned -- that Mueller was an airport, and soon they'll be asking, "What's that big chunk of land?"
Mary Lehmann would respond, it's "the city's most valuable asset." Hyde Park resident Lehmann, a longtime activist on land-use and tax issues, is the force behind Keep the Land -- a nascent organization whose mission is to convince the city that it should lease, rather than sell, Mueller's 711 acres to the developers who will build out the mixed-use urban village called for by the RMMA redevelopment master plan, adopted last year. By doing so, Lehmann and her allies have argued, the city could earn tens of millions of dollars in revenue, avoid future tax increases, and maintain control over the land to ensure that the plan's New Mueller really is what gets built on the ground.
Lehmann, who's gotten support from the local chapters of the Sierra Club, Green Party, and Gray Panthers, has been advocating this position for some time within the channels of the New Mueller effort: to the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition (and especially on its e-mail list), to the planners of San Francisco-based Roma Design Group who drafted the master plan, and in front of the city-appointed RMMA Redevelopment Advisory Commission. Keep the Land has also gone public -- with a Web site (www.keeptheland.org), ads in the Chronicle, and visits to neighborhood associations -- to pressure the City Council to commit to leasing before the city negotiates a contract with a master developer who will oversee the actual Mueller build-out.
The city has requested proposals from three finalists -- national real estate powerhouses Catellus and Lennar, and a local joint venture including Cousins Stone, Cencor, Milburn, and other name players.
"Obviously the city must act on keeping the land prior to reaching a formal agreement with the master developer," Lehmann says. "I would like disposition of the land to be considered as part of the RFP (request-for-proposals) process, so that developers are aware that this is an option that the citizens support." That is, assuming citizens support it.
Keeping and leasing the Mueller land seems like a simple proposition, but so far it hasn't been the premise of the redevelopment effort -- which has taken two drafts, five years, several million dollars, many consultants working with Roma, several full-time city staff people, two close calls at the Texas Legislature, and untold volunteer hours from (mostly) community activists. Lehmann's enthusiasm -- some might say obsession -- with the city's retaining title to all of Mueller as the only way to achieve the project's goals has not been all that well received.
"Nobody has ever said that leasing should not happen there, but [Keep the Land] has never moved off the notion that the city should keep every square inch of it," says Jim Walker, Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition organizer and chair of the city's Mueller advisory commission (and, in his spare time, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council). "We all want to see the master plan vision implemented, and I would love to see Mueller become a cash cow, but I'm not ready to say there's only one single strategy that can accomplish those goals." Unlike Lehmann, Walker says he'd like to consider many different options before choosing one.
"We know the master plan will evolve over time as markets and players change," Walker adds, "so we're trying to stay focused on what the goals and principles (of the plan) are. In the long-term -- 30 years or more -- I'm not sure a leasing strategy will give us the flexibility to maintain focus on the goals." He also isn't sure that a long-term ground lease will increase the city's control over Mueller's acreage.
Lehmann notes that selling all or even part of Mueller outright certainly limits the city's options. "If at some point after leasing for a period of time it clearly makes more sense to sell," she says, "then by leasing now you have preserved the option to sell later. If this land is sold now, it's out of the city's hands for good."
Throughout the life of the project, at least some land sales have been presumed to be more or less necessary to execute the master plan, both to increase Mueller's attractiveness to developers, and to fund the infrastructure investments the plan will require. "If the goal of making Mueller a cash cow was the primary goal, we wouldn't have the master plan we have now," Walker says. "It's a unique opportunity for funding other projects, but I'm not sure how tolerant the voters of this city will be if it doesn't pay for itself."
However, Lehmann believes it is much more likely that the master plan will be followed if the city maintains ownership of the tract. "The site will be developed even faster and with better quality if leased," she says. "No one will hold leased land and wait for the land prices to inflate; hence development will proceed promptly. [And] because all of the private value will be in the buildings and structures, it will be wise for the master developer to maximize value by building high quality into the development."