A decades-long community planning and redevelopment process has transformed the 700-acre site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport on the eastern side of Austin, Texas. When the airport had been active, its proximity negatively affected economic conditions in surrounding neighborhoods, which also suffered from being isolated from downtown Austin by Interstate 35. Beginning as a grassroots effort in the 1980s, local residents articulated a new vision for the area that would relocate the airport and attract businesses, create a mixed-use development, and encourage a mixed-income residential community. That vision and the airport’s closure in 1999 paved the way for redevelopment of the airport site with a planned community, Mueller, consisting of various housing types, commercial properties, and a network of green spaces. The first residents moved into Mueller in 2007. If market conditions remain favorable, by 2020 the community is expected to be substantially built out, with 5,900 total housing units, 4.3 million square feet of commercial space, and 140 acres of green space. Emphasizing housing affordability, environmental sustainability, economic development, and community participation, Mueller’s redevelopment represents model urban development practice in both its planning and implementation.
Crafting a Community’s Vision
Citizen participation and engagement has been central to the Mueller redevelopment process. The city worked with the community to develop its vision for the reuse of the airport site; in 1996, it appointed a 16-member task force composed of diverse stakeholders from across the community. The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Process and Goals Task Force produced a report outlining the following goals for the redevelopment, which became the basis for the formal city planning process:
- Fiscal responsibility.
- Economic development.
- East Austin revitalization.
- Compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods.
Based on this early work and additional public meetings, ROMA Design Group, the city’s consultants, crafted a comprehensive plan for the site that the city council adopted in 2000. The city conducted a national search for a master developer and selected Catellus Development Corporation, signing a master development agreement in 2004 that governs Mueller’s redevelopment.
Catellus adopted the city’s practice of extensive community outreach and engagement, according to Dee Desjardin, Mueller marketing and communications director for Catellus. Citizen participation in planning and implementation continues as Catellus regularly convenes public forums to gain input on key elements of the plan that are in development, including the town center and market district. In addition, a standing committee of local residents regularly assesses the development’s impact on transportation, and the city-appointed Plan Implementation Advisory Commission advises the city council on issues related to the redevelopment. According to Pam Hefner, project manager for Austin’s Economic Development Department, the commission considers big-picture concerns and opportunities related to Mueller.
Housing and Economic Development
Mueller’s residential inventory includes various types of units for both purchase and rental, including single-family detached houses, rowhouses, condominiums, and apartment buildings. As of September 2015, 2,579 residential units either had been completed or were under construction. The development agreement requires that 25 percent of all housing units be priced at or below 80 percent of the median family income (MFI) for ownership units and at no more than 60 percent of MFI for rental units. Austin’s S.M.A.R.T. Housing program (Safe, Mixed Income, Accessible, Reasonably Priced, Transit Oriented) is the basis for Mueller’s Affordable Homes program, which is managed by Community Wheelhouse, a group of housing specialists and advocates who ensure income qualification for homebuyers and renters. The need to maintain the affordability of the for-sale affordable houses over the long term motivated Catellus to create the Mueller Foundation, which uses a soft second lien on the houses to retain the option to purchase the home for resale to another qualified buyer.
The development’s commercial component accommodates office, institutional, and retail uses. The Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and the University of Texas Dell Pediatric Research Institute decided to locate at Mueller even before the development agreement was finalized, which, according to Desjardin and Hefner, helped establish Mueller as an employment center. Approximately 1.8 million square feet of commercial space was either completed or under construction as of September 2015. At the end of 2013, Mueller’s commercial space accommodated 67 employers and more than 4,850 workers, which is projected to rise to 13,000 total workers when the development is complete.
The built environment at Mueller reflects the project’s sustainability goals and enhances Austin’s reputation as a city with progressive green building standards. Buildings at Mueller are required to comply with the Austin Energy Green Building program, achieving a three-star rating for residential properties and a two-star rating for commercial properties in the program’s five-star rating system, or receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Mueller is home to the greatest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in Austin, and the community’s commercial and multifamily buildings have achieved special distinction, with 50 properties either certified as LEED Silver or better or rated at least 3 stars by the Austin Energy Green Building program. Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas was designated the first LEED Platinum hospital in the world. Mueller’s high green building standards for houses and neighborhoods pre-date LEED’s rating systems in those categories; its plan has received LEED for Neighborhood Development Silver certification. Hefner and Desjardin credit the project’s impressive sustainability achievements to the task force’s goals, the plan, the development agreement, and the development’s design guidelines, including recycling building materials, reclaiming water, and mitigating heat island effects, as well as the community’s pride in expanding the project’s original environmental goals.
Energy-efficiency innovations at Mueller include a demonstration project with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Demonstration Program. The project is managed by Pecan Street, an energy research consortium of utilities, university researchers, and technology companies based at the University of Texas at Austin. Pecan encourages Mueller residents to use energy-efficient technologies such as solar panels, appliances with electricity use managed by software, and electric vehicles. To obtain reliable measures of actual energy use, Pecan Street is collecting unprecedented amounts of household data with the goal of encouraging energy-efficient practices that reduce costs to consumers and burdens on the electrical grid.
Mueller’s site plan also demonstrates sustainability through an array of green spaces, including multiple greenways, parks, and lakes. Open space at Mueller was designed to support recreation, build a sense of community, and meet ecological goals for stormwater management and drought resistance. At completion, green space will account for 140 acres (20 percent of the total land area) and will connect to a 13-mile network of on- and offroad trails. In addition, Mueller is served by bus routes and is positioned to connect to Austin’s rail system if voters approve funding.
The development agreement between the city of Austin and Catellus addresses the costs of public improvements such as streets and sidewalks, utilities, and parks for the entire 700-acre development (table 1). The infrastructure costs, estimated at $265 million, are primarily funded by revenues from land sales to parcel developers. The city reduces Catellus’s costs by holding ownership of the land until a builder has been contracted. Tax increment financing and other public revenue bonds are the other major sources of funding for infrastructure costs. Desjardin and Hefner point out that the 2007 recession did not significantly hinder the project’s financing, in part because of the development agreement’s flexible, long-term structure, the recession’s relatively weak impact in Austin, and the market’s favorable reaction to Mueller.
Table 1. Mueller Infrastructure Financing
|Land sale proceeds||$185,000,000|
Mueller has used innovative practices to implement a bold vision for redeveloping an abandoned airport and revitalizing a section of Austin. As a result, Mueller “has become a place where the city can try new development ideas and practices and learn from them,” according to Desjardin. The development’s lessons are recognized far beyond the city, with practitioners from around the world visiting Mueller to see it firsthand. For its spirit of experimentation and success in implementing a bold vision, the Mueller redevelopment received the HUD Secretary’s Opportunity and Empowerment Award in 2015.