Naked City

City: Don't Keep the Land!

Let it not be said that City Hall is being coy about what it wants to do with the 711 acres that once were Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. At last week's City Council meeting, staff gave a somewhat unexpected public briefing (after the latest in a long series of executive session discussions) arguing that leasing, rather than selling, the Mueller acreage – as advocated by the activist group Keep the Land – would be disastrous for the RMMA redevelopment project, intended by the city to be a model for the progressive mixed-use, transit-oriented, New Urbanist development Austin wishes to make the norm.

The City Council is slated to hold a public hearing and finally vote on this question at today's (Thursday) council meeting – an essential step on the way toward finalizing a development agreement with the city's designated private-sector Mueller partner, Catellus Development Corp., before the council takes its July summer break. Those negotiations have been ongoing for nearly two years, and the New Mueller effort itself (at least as an official city project) is now entering its ninth year, and the city is eager to move forward, particularly given Mueller's perceived critical role in the success of regional growth-management and revitalization efforts – Capital Metro rail plans, the Envision Central Texas regional vision (see facing page), and so on.

Over the years, the idea of keeping the Mueller land – and thus securing an ongoing revenue stream for the city, among other benefits touted by Keep the Land – has been discussed at some length, even before the Mueller master plan was completed back in 2000. It's never been a very popular idea among city staff, consultants, and some of Mueller's citizen and neighborhood champions, for the reasons that Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens and city outside counsel Jim Cousar laid out in last week's presentation. (The same spiel was given to the city's citizen Mueller Commission – which was not entirely convinced that leasing would be such a terrible strategy – at an emergency meeting Tuesday night, and you can see it online at www.cityofaustin.org.) Cousar focused on the massive legal and administrative headaches that he said would result from the city's needing to maintain ongoing landlord-tenant relationships with potentially thousands of property owners – including homeowners for whom the concept of a ground lease (owning the house but not the lot) is almost completely alien.

Meanwhile, Stephens – sharing more details about the city's Mueller financing strategy and options than has been the norm over the months of backroom talks with Catellus – argued that only a front-end sale of the property to the developer would generate enough money to pay for the infrastructure investments in what is basically raw land, without roads or utilities. The city still expects to have to sell bonds (backed by a tax-increment financing district) to cover some of the $175 million in project costs. But without sale proceeds, Stephens claimed, the city would have to issue four times as much debt and borrow money from Catellus at a projected interest rate of 20% and dip into a General Fund that's already in the red.

The fact that the City Council agreed to make this discussion public may signify the outcome of tonight's vote. Yet Keep the Land – whose founder Mary Lehmann disputes the staff's basic assumptions about financing and says Stephens and Cousar "did their best to make leasing look silly" by omitting any discussion of leasing's benefits – is not giving up the fight. "The city staff's foot-dragging and ridiculous picture of leasing have made the council anxious to get a more balanced picture," Lehmann says.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Mueller, Keep the Land, Catellus, Jim Cousar, John Stephens

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