The Austin Chronicle

Big Boxing at Mueller

By Kimberly Reeves, April 23, 2004, News

The advisory commission over the Mueller Municipal Airport's redevelopment efforts has declined to rule out Wal-Mart or Lowe's as a future neighbor on the 700-acre site.

Wal-Mart hardly sounds like the kind of tenant that would be welcome at Mueller, a kind of "shining city upon the hill" for Austin that is intended to exemplify the best in city planning. Commissions and boards, task forces and consultants have crafted and recrafted the Mueller plan over the last two decades, all with the intention of creating a utopian "city within a city" with retail, office, and homes peacefully coexisting side by side.

But the members of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission say they are realists and that master developer Catellus needs an economic driver to promote the more noble goals of Mueller, such as significant affordable housing. On Tuesday night, the general consensus of the advisory commission was that Wal-Mart might not be all bad for the freeway frontage at Mueller, if it was done right.

Activist Robert Singleton of the Keep the Land coalition presented his arguments against Wal-Mart at the meeting, saying it would encourage traffic, discourage local business, and run counter to the Mueller master plan ideals. Commissioners countered that regional retail always has been an option for the parcel of Mueller that sits at the intersection of 51st and I-35, even as far back as the 1984 Mueller proposal.

"We need to be thinking positively about this and encourage the best development that it can be," commissioner and architect Donna Carter told her colleagues. "If it happens to be Wal-Mart or Lowe's or Home Depot and it gives us a living wage and gives us good design and gives us people places, that ultimately will make our small businesses stronger and the community better, and we get to grab some dollars for infrastructure."

In other words, take the lemons and make lemonade. Mueller will have one tool most developments do not, and that's strong covenant agreements with tenants. Each parcel will have strict zoning provisions intended to keep Mueller on track. The advisory commission's focus will not be whether or not a Wal-Mart is on the property, but what controls – both design and nondesign – Catellus can put on "big-box" retail.

Singleton and Mary Lehmann will be at City Council on Thursday to speak their piece. Council is posted to discuss the disposition of the Mueller property, either lease or sale, during its Thursday morning session.

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