Who Will Rule Mueller?

As "the plan" becomes "the deal," can the city still screw it up?

We're worried about developers coming in and saying 'That's a nice idea you have here, but let's face facts.' 

-- Jim Walker, Mueller Advisory Commission
"We're worried about developers coming in and saying 'That's a nice idea you have here, but let's face facts.'"
-- Jim Walker, Mueller Advisory Commission (Photo By John Anderson)

Sometimes -- OK, lots of times -- Austin does nothing but talk and worry about an issue, or a project, for decades, and then "solves" the problem in a big old hurry, often not very well. If that's the rule, the redevelopment of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport is the exception that proves it.

That project has been talked and worried about for decades, too -- since about the mid-1980s, when moving the airport was the topic du jour. But from the moment the city acquired a genuine need for a redevelopment strategy -- that is, when it decided to build Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and close Mueller -- the project has moved slowly but inexorably toward reality, in textbook fashion. Beginning in 1996, goals were defined, stakeholders were brought to the table, consensus was built, experts were engaged, a plan was written (and then rewritten), the City Council blessed it, a citizen panel of watchdogs was appointed, developers were invited to compete for the project, and responses were received and winnowed accordingly.

On January 31, the two finalists for the gig of Mueller master developer -- San Francisco's Catellus Development and the local Mueller Redevelopment Team -- will turn in their "business plans" to the city. The City Council is expected to pick one of the two this spring (maybe before the next election, maybe not). Then will come the inevitable and arduous negotiations on the most complex contract the city has likely ever cut, for a 20-year effort to turn the 711 acres of the old airport into a mixed-use urban village with thousands of residents and millions of square feet of commercial space (see "Who Are These People?" below, for more details about the two contestants).

The New Mueller saga has not really been as simple and boring as this tidy summary suggests. But in a city that is all too accomplished at pulling sloppy, inelegant ad hoc "solutions" out of crisis, conflict, and untoward political pressure, the more or less orderly, peaceable, and community-friendly Mueller redevelopment effort has been one hell of an achievement.

What can the city do now to screw it up?

The Neighborhood or the Market?

That's what the people living around the old airport, as represented by the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, are currently worrying about. The neighbors have been the dominant stakeholders in Mueller redevelopment, by both design and default, since before the beginning of the current New Mueller effort. So they -- and in particular their spokesperson and de facto leader, Jim Walker -- have a lot of practice at worrying about how the Mueller project can go wrong.

"We're worried about developers coming in and saying 'That's a nice idea you have here, but let's face facts,'" says Walker (who also serves as the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the chair of the city-appointed Mueller advisory commission), referring to the New Mueller vision outlined in the RMMA Redevelopment and Reuse Plan, drafted by San Francisco-based Roma Design Group and presented to the City Council in 2000. "I know I'm a broken record on this subject, but even as the markets change, the ideals and principles of the plan -- of the community -- have to hold true."

Those ideals have remained remarkably consistent from the mid-1980s, when the neighbor-driven Citizens for Airport Relocation (C.A.R.E.) outlined a vision of post-aviation Mueller anchored by a dense commercial core and surrounded by lower-scale residential -- dubbed at the time the "wedding cake plan." That's pretty much exactly what the Roma master plan calls for, though in today's New Urbanist schema the "town center" involves a mix of uses, and the north side of the airport, though still lower-density, is also commercial.

Other goals include pedestrian and transit orientation (the Roma plan calls for a light-rail connection), economic development opportunities to benefit Mueller's East Austin environs, and a 25% allotment of affordable housing among Mueller's 3,000-plus single- and multifamily residential units. The plan "is not 'highest and best use,'" says Walker, referring to the real-estate term-of-art for the most lucrative development option. "But it's not pie-in-the-sky either. It's not really pushing the envelope of New Urbanism. And we have to continue to strive for as much density we can bear, for mixed use, for transit orientation, for affordability, regardless of what the market conditions in Year X say are possible."

Despite the largely bump-free ride so far, there's ample reason for Walker and his fellow neighborhood stakeholders to be wary. Until now, the New Mueller saga has taken place in public, though often out of the spotlight. But now that the Plan will be subsumed by the Deal, the action will have to decamp to that famously reviled locale: the Back Room.

The Mueller Plan: for an in-depth explanation, see <a href=http://www.auschron.com/issues/dispatch/2000-06-30/pols_feature2.html>The Lay of the Land</a>
The Mueller Plan: for an in-depth explanation, see The Lay of the Land

Already, contact between stakeholders and the aspiring developers has been circumscribed. After the business plans -- outlining each team's vision of how best to do the project -- are turned in on January 31, it will be months before they're made public, right in the teeth of the next election. After the City Council gives either Catellus or the MRDT the nod, then it will take months to hash out a contract, during which the only public sign of progress will be executive-session briefings posted on the council agenda. "There will be lots of lawyers on both sides, lots of details, lots of things to negotiate," says Dave Kreider of the city's Office of Redevelopment Services, the point man on the Mueller project. "It will be extraordinarily complex."

For good or ill, that's how these things are done, but it's naturally troubling to Mueller neighbors to see their hands-on control of the redevelopment effort go from nearly 100% (heretofore, even one-off interim uses of the Mueller property have been vetted by the neighbors) to close to zero, with any future role presumably subject to what gets written into the contract. Walker has speculated about how a community stakeholder rep can be included in, or at least made privy to, the actual negotiations, but based on past practice, city staff topsiders would probably rather swallow ground glass.

Then again, based on past practice, some sort of ombudsman might help avoid a large-scale replay of past city dealmaking snafus. "I think the city's committed to working with the [Mueller] Commission and listening to the community," Walker says. "But anyone who's seen some of the other development contracts the city's entered into" -- e.g., the CSC deal -- "wants a little more security than past experience provides if this doesn't proceed along the rosy path we've forecast.

"But I think the city and the community are at this point on the same side," Walker continues. "It is the city's plan, and it was derived from community input and a real estate market analysis. It's how we bring this third party into this relationship that will be tricky."

Home vs. Visitors

The menage will be more or less tricky depending on which developer is invited to the party, since they are not interchangeable. Consistently, tacitly if not openly, and perhaps unfairly throughout the New Mueller effort, it's been assumed that, since nothing like this project has ever been done in Austin before, nobody in Austin could do it. This was one reason why the City Council's disastrous 2000 flirtation with a Mueller-for-aquifer land-swap deal with Stratus Properties came a cropper, and in the wake of that mess the city jump-started its efforts to (in the words of the winner of that political set-to, Council Member Beverly Griffith) "find the best master developer possible."

That made it a little surprising, at least to the more idealistic among Mueller observers, that the ad hoc local MRDT made it to the city's original three-member short list. The third entrant, Florida-based Lennar Communities, dropped out of the running in November, citing negative economic conditions, and until quite recently rumors swirled that Catellus would do the same, either leaving the MRDT uncontested or starting the whole process over. Either option left Mueller stakeholders with something approaching palpable dread.

However, Catellus has been quietly, but not too quietly, knocking on doors all over town these past few weeks, aiming to pay its respects to Austin and its sometimes peculiar way of doing the people's business. Depending on its success, the San Francisco giant may neutralize the ability of the MRDT, or any local developer, to claim it speaks Austin-ese better than any out-of-towner. (As Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong put it in 2000, "There's a real Dumb Tax involved in working in Austin.")

A local team can still plausibly claim to be more likely to hang around for the 20 years it'll take to build the New Mueller -- assuming it remains financially stable, which may be an advantage for the publicly traded Catellus. And there is the little matter of political connections, made the more salient by the timing of the City Council's decision right before -- or right after -- the May election. But in terms of a track record with large, complex, mixed-use, public/private projects -- the No. 1 criteria identified by Roma, and the city's original request-for-qualifications, for evaluating a master developer -- a matchup between the MRDT and Catellus is like a head-to-head between the Runnin' Horns (at best) and the L.A. Lakers.

Who's Got the Candle?

Even with the currently languid economy, the New Mueller would still seem a prize plum for any developer who could pull it off: 700 acres of raw land, 15 minutes from downtown Austin, where the neighbors want the most intense development possible. But despite the fun and freedom the stakeholders have enjoyed during the planning phase, where the old airport was a blank canvas, either Catellus or the MRDT will have to deal with certain facts on the ground.

Some of these may give a boost to the project unforeseen even in the heady Mueller-is-our-oyster days of the master-planning process. Most obvious is the snowballing success of the Austin Studios, technically an "interim" use (though at least for the next 10 years) of the old Mueller buildings but now written into the Roma plan and presumably not going anywhere. "We see ourselves as a positive element that can be an anchor to pulling businesses and residents to the area," says Suzanne Quinn, director of the Austin Film Society's nonprofit soundstage complex, Austin Studios, which since opening in 2000 has already hosted seven feature-film productions (see "Muellerwood," above, for more on the studios' impact on the project).

The Film Society made sure that its first step was to get buy-in from the neighbors and discuss how the studio would fit into the planning effort. On the other hand, just down 51st Street from the Studios, the project managers of combined city/county/state emergency communications center -- where your 911 calls will get answered -- simply carved out a chunk of Mueller land, ignored the Roma plan, and started work on building a bunker, giving the Mueller stakeholders fits.

If, as the project proceeds, the master-developer arrangement works as seamlessly as the city, Roma, and the neighbors hope, coups like the emergency center would likewise give Catellus or the MRDT fits; such power plays are, unfortunately, an occupational hazard of public/private redevelopment projects. Witness the state of Texas' alternate attempts to keep Mueller open to air traffic and to claim 282 acres of the site for its own use -- prospects that, while now dormant, will not likely be declared dead until the city actually cuts a deal with a master developer and starts turning some dirt.

The latest claimant is Travis County, which last week decided to express its interest in 20 acres of Mueller for a future government complex. "The problem will start if, or when, they start drawing themselves in on the map and deciding how much, if any, of the master plan they want to follow," says Walker, alluding to the experience with the emergency center. "There's two starkly different precedents, and it'll be interesting to see which one Travis County follows. Commissioner [Ron] Davis [in whose precinct Mueller lies] says he's very committed to the grassroots process, so that would suggest the Film Society model."

With a project of this size and duration, the city and community are likely to encounter bumps and hurdles we can't even conceive of yet. "The first major challenges will be three or four years down the road," says Walker, "and how we handle them will all depend on the relationship the master developer has with the community and the city. If that relationship starts off on the wrong foot here in the next couple of months, it's not going to be fun for anyone."

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Mueller Airport, city council, Catellus Development, Mueller Redevelopment Team, Jim Walker, RMMA, Roma Design Group, Citizens for Airport Relocation, Dave Kreider, Office of Redevelopment Services, Stratus Properties, Beverly Griffith, MRDT, Beau Armstrong, Travis County

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