Mueller Contenders Present Plans

The major contenders for the New Mueller development make their case to the city.

The old tower of Mueller Municipal Airport, seen from the door of Austin Film Studios.
The old tower of Mueller Municipal Airport, seen from the door of Austin Film Studios. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

Both the local joint-venture Mueller Redevelopment Team and San Francisco-based Catellus Development Corp. agree on one thing: that the New Mueller needs to be a little less dense and more market-driven than outlined in its long-labored-over master plan. Beyond that, the two teams put on divergent performances at their one and only public appearance, the city-appointed Mueller commission's March 5 meeting.

The citizens of the Mueller Redevelopment Implementation Advisory Commission, to use its proper name, actually have little to do with what is, despite the scale of the project, basically a regular old city procurement. (Though both teams agree that the commission should play a critical role in the 20-year buildout of the project.) City staff -- with input, but not votes, from advisory commission Chair Jim Walker and member Donna Carter -- will recommend either the MRT or Catellus "business plan" to the City Council, which should voice its choice either just before or just after the May elections.

Then begins the daunting task of negotiating with the winner of what may be Austin's most complex city contract ever, a process that will occur back in the conference rooms at City Hall and One Texas Center, away from public view. Because again, despite the New Mueller project's scale, citizens serving on the advisory commission actually have little decision-making power. So if they, and by extension the public, want to help make up the council's mind, they have naught to go on other than the two teams' PowerPoint displays and carefully crafted talking points.

In the MRT's case, this may be just one talking point: "We're local." Well, actually two: "We're local, and we know Peter Calthorpe." Calthorpe, one of the country's top urban planners, became familiar to Austinites through his work on the star-crossed Triangle Square project (whose developer, Tom Terkel of Cencor Urban, is part of the MRT). He is also the MRT's lead consultant, responsible for tweaking the Mueller master plan drafted by also-pretty-big-time Roma Design Group. Roma is helping the city evaluate the two proposals.

At the March 5 meeting, Calthorpe cheerfully conceded that his New Urbanist principles are amply evident in the Mueller plan as it stands. But his presence before the advisory commission also served to establish underdog MRT's parity with Catellus. The MRT's members -- including Cousins Properties, JPI, Milburn Homes, and Milburn parent company D.R. Horton, huge public companies all -- pack a lot of firepower. But the Mueller master-developer search was more or less designed to find someone who wasn't local, on the perhaps unfair assumption that no local developer could pull off a NewUrb mixed-use urban village.

MRT leader Terry Mitchell of Milburn, a former member of the Mueller commission, aimed to finesse the politically attractive merger of Calthorpe's experience and expertise in such projects with the team's local roots. After highlighting, among other things, the MRT members' good corporate citizenship, he noted, "This is our home. We're not going away, and we only want what's best for our city. If we're not the best developers for this project, then don't select us. As citizens we would expect nothing less."

Obviously, Catellus CEO Nelson Rising could not make the same appeal. But his firm's main talking point -- "We're the pros here" -- while not expressed as directly as Mitchell's, was buttressed by details absent from both MRT's presentation and, according to consultants Jim Adams (of Roma) and Jim Musbach (of Economic and Planning Systems, Roma's number-crunching partner), their business plan. Rising highlighted at least two Catellus projects -- San Francisco's Mission Bay and, across the bay, the redeveloped Alameda Naval Air Station -- that are close enough for government work to the New Mueller. "We have the skills set to create techniques that will allow this project to move," said Rising, "and the sophistication to know which markets will move and which will not."

Individually, MRT members are seasoned pros like Catellus, but the team itself has no track record. While the MRT's publicly traded members could use their own capital to guarantee the project's solvency without infusions of city money, Catellus has agreed to do so upfront. The MRT plan defers detailed discussion of costs and cash flow to subsequent negotiations with the city, but Catellus has already developed pro forma analyses for the project's entire 20-year scope. "The details in both cases would be worked out as part of an exclusive negotiation agreement," said a poker-faced Musbach. "Nevertheless, they provided different levels of detail ... The proposals are very distinct."

Where the two pitches are similar, said Adams, is in their land-use component. Citing market analyses, both call for losing about 1,000 residential units and 1 million square feet of commercial space -- a reduction of roughly 25% in both cases -- from Roma's master-plan version. As well, both Calthorpe of MRT and Catellus relocate the project's commercial component; the MRT shifts the "town center" north to 51st and Berkman, while Catellus splits off most of the retail into a regional center at 51st and I-35. Also, according to Mitchell, the MRT also adds an 80-acre UT biomedical research campus, at UT's request. (UT passed on a Mueller presence when Adams began drafting the master plan four years ago.)

Both the MRT and Catellus may draw fire for what both acknowledge are merely initial ideas for changes to the master plan, since both are suggesting the same sorts of alterations. But neither aims to deviate from the core principles of the plan. The decision will be made on points where the San Francisco firm, if not stronger in reality, appears to have made the stronger case. Said one in-the-know player watching from the audience, "I hear rumors at City Hall that it's going to be Catellus, 7-0."

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