The New Mueller: Prepare for Landing!

After 20 years of preparation, the City Council moves forward on the Mueller Airport Redevelopment plan

As outlined in the Mueller PUD zoning case, most of the old airport would be residential, with a mixed-use town center south of the new Children's Hospital, employment centers along the north side – expected to include regional retail  at 51st and I-35 – and a healthy belt of green space around the perimeter.
As outlined in the Mueller PUD zoning case, most of the old airport would be residential, with a mixed-use town center south of the new Children's Hospital, "employment centers" along the north side – expected to include "regional retail" at 51st and I-35 – and a healthy belt of green space around the perimeter.

After more than 20 years in the air, City Hall last week turned on the fasten-seat-belts sign as the ambitious Robert Mueller Municipal Airport redevelopment project began its final (?) descent. After a discussion unexpectedly free of turbulence, the council voted 7-0 to proceed with the city's intended strategy for disposition of the 711 acres of the old airport – by selling it, up front, to and through its presumptive private-sector partner, Catellus Development.

Despite ongoing and increasingly organized opposition to this approach from the citizen activist group Keep the Land – which has advocated for the city to retain ownership of Mueller and use ground leases to produce an ongoing revenue stream for City Hall – the council agreed wholeheartedly with city staff and Mueller neighbors' assessment that leasing would delay, if not doom, the project. According to staff, only an up-front sale would produce the revenue – without incurring a staggering debt load – needed to pay for the estimated $170 million in infrastructure costs for redeveloping what is now raw land.

Even a last-minute counterproposal from Keep the Land to pursue a mixed lease/sale strategy did not sway the council members, who eagerly responded to calls to keep moving forward on Mueller redevelopment, first proposed by citizens in 1984 and officially kicked off by City Hall in 1996. "We can't reopen this just to do leasing for the sake of leasing," Jim Walker, chair of the city's Mueller advisory commission, told the council. "We're all tired of talking about redevelopment. We want to see it."

The city and Catellus have been negotiating for more than two years on a master development agreement for the massive project, work that Catellus' Greg Weaver suggested might be for naught if the city embraced the leasing strategy. "From day one, our business plan has presumed a sale," he told the council. "You've hired world-class experts to tell you what's needed to finance projects of this scale and magnitude. When we came in, we realized it will take a sale to finance this project."

Right now, City Hall is rushing to get a Mueller deal finalized before the end of June, before the council takes its July summer break and then returns for six weeks of budget deliberations. The next step appears to be the actual rezoning of Mueller as a planned-unit development that would implement the recommendations of the city's carefully wrought Mueller master plan, completed in 1999 but not really "adopted" until zoning is in place. The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the Mueller PUD case on May 25.

Despite having lost their signature fight, Keep the Land supporters are not turning their attention elsewhere; the Mueller zoning case, and especially Catellus' plans for "regional retail" at the corner of 51st and I-35, have raised alarms among Austin's anti-big-box campaigners. A retail component at this corner has been part of the Mueller vision since the 1984 plan produced by Citizens for Airport Relocation, and since Mueller also is to include a New Urban "town center" with small-scale street-level retail, Catellus – looking for projects that can break ground quickly and start producing revenue – has thrown plans for a more traditional shopping center into the mix.

Given current market and political conditions, the location is likely to be attractive to Lowe's Home Centers – and, in a move causing concern among the anti-big-box forces, the list of permitted uses for that part of the Mueller PUD has been changed to allow "construction sales and service." However, given Lowe's unwillingness to play ball with Austin over the aquifer, it's plausible that the demands likely to be placed upon it, or any other anchor, at Mueller – by both the master plan and the political climate – could be a deal-killer. Walker and other Muelleristas suggest a more positive outcome: that Mueller can be an opportunity for big-box developers to atone for their sins and break the conventional retail mold.

Also still to be debated: how the Mueller project will achieve the master plan's ambitious (indeed, unprecedented for Austin) goals to provide affordable housing, a topic of keen interest to citizens, the planning commission, and the council. Both Catellus and the city's housing office are reportedly working on affordable housing plans for Mueller, which will likely be made public along with the final draft of a master development agreement with Catellus within the next few weeks.

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urban planning, Mueller, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, RMMA redevelopment, Keep the Land, Catellus Development, Lowe's Home Centers

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