The Austin Chronicle

Building Utopia

After years of pipe dreams, politics, and planning, the new Mueller neighborhood is rising at last

By Katherine Gregor, September 29, 2006, News

Who doesn't love a utopia?

In its master plan, the new Mueller neighborhood in near East Austin offers the gratifying headiness of a nearly perfect world vision. Co-created by passionate Austinites, this inner-city village on the site of the old Mueller Airport embraces the city's declared progressive social values: Green Urbanism, affordable housing, neighborhoods that build community, and environmental sustainability. Forged in the slow, open fire of public dialogue and debate, the plan for Mueller should make us proud of who we are – or can be – as a town.

At long last, Mueller-The Plan is going vertical. Within 12 to 18 months, people will be living and working at Mueller-The Place. Already under construction are a shopping center, apartments, offices, a 32-acre park, new streets, and native landscaping. The Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas will open in summer 2007, surrounded by a pediatrics area, expected to include a med-school-like UT teaching and research center. (The 169-bed facility has been designed to achieve the aggressive green-building goal of LEED Platinum certification, unprecedented in the health care industry.) The new community-within-a-community will occupy the same 711 acres as the former Mueller Airport that served Austin from 1930 to 1999 – an oddly shaped parcel fronting I-35 between Airport Boulevard and East 51st, east to Manor Road. Yet it's really a whole new place. What we'll see, as it gets built out over the next five, 10, 15, even 20 years, is how true Mueller can stay to the master plan's progressive vision. We're starting the real world test.

Mueller-The Process

Creating the new Mueller, a marathon of political will and planning, has entailed a decadeslong process that involved numerous political and financial players, many citizens and stakeholders, and iterations dating back to the early Eighties. Formal redevelopment planning began in 1996; a public task force became a board that evolved into the Mueller Commission. In 1997, San Francisco's ROMA Design Group was contracted to turn community goals and recommendations into a workable master plan. The state of Texas first claimed 282 acres for its own uses, then abandoned its role as lead developer in 1999, sending the master plan back to the drawing board. But the citizen-led Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition hung tough. The MNC's de facto leader, Jim Walker, also served as president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and as chair of the Mueller Commission, helping MNC to maintain strong leverage in the planning process.

After a detour in 2000-2001, when the city briefly and contentiously considered trading Mueller to Stratus Properties for the developer's environmentally sensitive land over the Edwards Aquifer (never specified, but likely to have included what is now the AMD Lantana tract), the city finally made a national search for an experienced master developer. Catellus Development Group won the job; there followed more refinements to the plan, more citizen input, and final negotiations. Finally, in late 2004, the city of Austin signed an exhaustive 1,000-page Master Development Agreement with Catellus. While the process was long and grueling, it carried out the principles of community inclusiveness and respectful consensus-building around city, developer, and citizen/neighborhood interests. The outcome: Austin completed a major civic initiative with broad-based community support and no audible detractors – a bird rarer in these parts than a black-capped vireo.

The numbers, as projected, look good. According to the Master Development Agreement, Mueller is planned to have 10,000 residents (including about 1,000 units of affordable housing out of about 4,000 units total), about 10,000 jobs, and well more than 100 acres of parks and green space. According to Pam Hefner, project manager for the city, projections at the 20-year mark show Mueller with a tax-base valuation of $1.3 billion. The $46 million in city bonds required to finance the project will have been paid off, and Mueller will have generated enough property and sales taxes to have netted $55 million to $65 million for the city's general fund. After that, said Hefner, "It's all gravy."

Getting the Picture

The best place to understand Mueller now is not at the physical site (although it's worth driving by to glimpse the nascent transformation) but at its Web site, Click through "The Plan," an accessible and visual overview of the future community. The "Mueller Green Resources Guide" explains how Mueller will embody Green Urbanism to minimize negative impact on air quality and the environment. The design guidelines in the "Mueller Design Book" illustrate how the community plans to follow New Urbanist and traditional-neighborhood principles (to be ensured by an architectural review committee). The community will have a retail Town Center designed like a village square, not a suburban mall. Residents can theoretically walk or bike to work at Mueller offices and employers (including the medical area); well-designed streets and paths will serve as public spaces that encourage walking and cycling; streetcar service will reduce use of cars; and neighborhoods will include affordable housing of varied types. Even the landscaping, with native Texas plants, is specified.

Art, education, and heart have a place as well. On Mueller's eastern edge, south of filmmaking hub Austin Studios (created through a partnership between the city and the Austin Film Society) and Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios, will be an AISD elementary school and Rathgeber Village. In the village, community nonprofits – including the Austin Children's Shelter, potentially CASA (advocates for abused and neglected children in the court system), the Scottish Rite Learning Center, and Family Eldercare – are building new facilities on an adjacent tract of land donated by developer/philanthropist Dick Rathgeber.

Handing Off the Vision

It all does sound utopian. But what happens when the progressive, neighborhood-based ideals get handed off to the developers and money people? That's been a concern of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition and skeptical community activists all along. On the macro level, the Master Development Agreement does a good overall job of safeguarding the principles and intent of the master plan. It's the details of how each component gets worked out that will remain at issue, requiring ongoing community watchdogs.

After all these years, some Mueller marathoners are showing understandable signs of exhaustion. In a post to the Mueller Redevelopment Yahoo group, urban-design czar and longtime Mueller champion Girard Kinney noted, "Recently, there is a problem with attendance and representation at MNC. Some neighborhoods no longer send representatives to its meetings, and some 'representatives' appear not to be keeping their respective neighborhoods apprised of what goes on at Mueller, and to bring neighborhood concerns to the coalition so that it can continue its vital historic role."

As construction proceeds, public enthusiasm and vigilance matter as much as ever. Walker sees plenty of opportunity for new people to get involved, to help the city and the community get more out of Mueller. Current topics stirring up the MNC debate include whether and how a proposed streetcar line should link Mueller to downtown Austin; the potentially expanding scope of UT's "Academic Health Center" (that not-quite-a-med-school); the need for a more coordinated approach to parks and green spaces; affordable housing; and how independent, locally owned businesses fit into the retail mix.

"The perfect project does not exist, where, from every perspective, it's perfect point by point," Walker points out. "Some people thought Mueller should be 100 percent affordable housing or have no chain retailers or all be a park. Some have picked apart the architectural rendering for the first apartment complex. But people are going to be hard-pressed, when they look at Mueller as an entirety, not to appreciate that the overall approach works so well."

Fortunately, Catellus and its development partners appear genuinely determined to do the project right. "The people executing the MDA are as passionate about Mueller as the people who created it," asserts Bob Wynn of Colliers Oxford Commercial, which is handling the office and multifamily sites at Mueller. "It's incumbent upon us to carry the torch. We're all really committed and passionate and share the vision, and there's no doubt in our minds about what it is going to be." Not just anyone can do a project at Mueller, he adds: "We're actively looking for developers and companies that embrace and will implement the New Urbanism concept."

Matt Whelan, a native Austinite who recently took over the project's reins for Catellus, feels similarly: "Mueller excites me because it's going to be such a huge part of the character of Austin," he says. "It's the large number of people who are involved and passionate about it that's interesting. We'll continue the emphasis on community input and keeping people informed."

To start Mueller's economic engines, the first phase of retail development fronting I-35 will be anchored by a Best Buy, a Marshalls, and a Bed Bath & Beyond – hardly stores that embody local character. According to Whelan, the big-box retail – restricted to the interstate highway area – is needed to generate the sales-tax revenues that will fund Mueller's infrastructure. Large-scale public art (still in the selection process) will enliven the drive-by experience along I-35. Smaller retail spaces nearby and in the Town Center will be scaled to suit locally owned businesses, says Whelan.

Thinking about moving to utopia? As conceived, neighborhoods will look more like a denser Hyde Park (minus the big yards) than a conventionally developed subdivision. Although homes won't be for sale until 2007 and later, it's not too early to register on the Web site. Given the commitment to build at least 25% affordable housing overall – and a variety of styles to include compact row houses and live-work lofts – Mueller should be in high demand. Folks who meet eligibility requirements (earning no more than 80% of the local median family income) could buy a home close-in for as little as $140,000, or even less. A special outreach is planned to East Austin residents, seniors, and low-income families.

According to Frances Ferguson, an affordable housing professional consulting with the developer, "Catellus has really embraced this as a challenge." The developer is so committed to affordable housing, said Ferguson, that it is doing significantly more than the MDA requires. For example, by requiring certification of buyers and renters, Catellus is working to ensure that the low-priced housing actually goes to people of low incomes. The developer is pushing affordability deeper by encouraging home-builders to "think hard" about their pricing, Ferguson added, and "working to find a way to have a land trust" underwritten by public, private, and charitable funds as a way to build homes for even lower low-income folks. Rental housing is being planned at all price levels, with some affordable to even very low-income households. In sum, Mueller represents the single most significant affordable-housing initiative in Austin.

Let's Do It Again

The Mueller master plan is strong precisely because it was co-created by so many people who cared deeply about getting it right – and who made the effort to understand, respect, and accommodate one another's goals and points of view. Is there a larger lesson for Austin to learn here? Perhaps no one has thought more about this than Jim Walker, who deserves considerable community thanks for volunteering thousands of hours over 11 years to sanely represent community and neighborhood interests in the Mueller process.

"It would be a lot cooler if, 20 years from now, we could say that Mueller was where we turned the corner in terms of the stakeholder process," he muses. "Mueller shows the importance of focusing on good relationships, that are mutually reinforcing, rather than on the plan itself. That's what the three main parties – the city, the developer, and the community – did here. It's the commitment to seek common ground, within an atmosphere of heightened community interest and engagement, that produces the positive outcome." He adds: "It's not the best we can do in Austin. But Mueller is an example that we can do better than we have. We have to keep striving."

Learning from Mueller could point us toward a codified stakeholder-input process that's grounded in clear goals, consensus building, and mutual respect – a process that consistently produces good development in hot-button areas. A utopian vision? Perhaps. But if we're hip enough to conceive Mueller – and then actually bring it to fruition over the next two decades – then Austin could be hip enough to pull that off, too.

For general information and news updates, visit For info on Mueller Neighborhood Coalition meetings and to participate in community dialogue on Mueller issues, join the Yahoo group:

Upcoming public events include:

"Mueller Family Day," 2-4pm, Sunday, Oct. 15, a public open house on the Mueller site along Mueller Boulevard near the Dell Children's Medical Center. Opportunity for attendees, especially potential residents and business people, to obtain a closer look at the progress of the Mueller community, talk with Mueller representatives, and enjoy good food and family-friendly activities.

"Mueller 301," 6pm Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Region 13 Center at 5701 Springdale, also open to the public. Third in a series of information forums on the progress of the Mueller community, featuring roundtable discussions on such topics as regional retail, local business outreach, affordable housing, the Dell Pediatric Research Institute at UT-Austin, and more. An advanced update for neighborhood people, planners, community activists, and others interested in the ongoing project.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.