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The Mueller Progenitors (Front Porch Flyer series)
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The Mueller Progenitors (series published in the Front Porch Flyer five parts in 2012-2013)
By Dusty Harshman

Part 1: Mueller’s 25-year History
Part 2: Fiscal Responsibility, Economic Development, and East Austin Revitalization.
Part 3: Design Principles in Practice: Education
Part 4: Compatibility with Surrounding Neighborhoods, Diversity, and Sustainability
Part 5: Final Thoughts for the Progeny

(This series recorded highlights of an April 2012 conversation with Girard Kinney and Jim Walker, residents of Cherrywood, Rick Krivoniak from Windsor Park, and Ken Ronsonette of Delwood II. The conversation was themed around Mueller’s progress from the perspective those that participated in early stages of its design, and Mueller's alignment with its six design principles. I will attempt to record the conversational tone wherever possible.)

Part 1: Mueller’s 25-year History (published Summer 2012)

“In 1996, the city thought it was forming a ‘task force’, but all they were really doing was re-convening a group of neighborhoods that had been involved in Mueller from the beginning” said Girard Kinney, as we buckled in to discuss Mueller’s origins.

The “beginning?” While construction on what we now call the Mueller neighborhood began almost seven years ago, and the last airplane departed in 1999, Girard was referring to a beginning that for him dates to 1984, when surrounding neighborhoods proposed the Citizens for Airport Relocation or “CARE” Plan for Mueller’s re-development. At the time, a common threat to the neighborhoods was Mueller’s proposed expansion to handle more passengers and air freight.

The CARE plan envisioned a development that “balances the multiple objectives of intensive land use and neighborhood compatibility,” essentially the underpinnings of mixed-use, new urban development. Neighbors were meeting to share how future Muellerites would “have convenient access to jobs, shopping and a pleasant urban park near the center of the village.” Of course, the term “new urbanism” had yet to be coined, and its ideals were yet to be codified. The neighborhoods swatted away several attempts at expansion until 1993 when Austin formally voted to move the city’s airport to the shuttered Bergstrom Air Force Base.

With that stage set, back to the conversation…

Jim Walker (JW): “The ’96 Mueller Task Force didn’t end the community engagement, particularly after the State of Texas entered the discussion. The State of Texas attempted three times from 1997 to 2000 to appropriate Mueller for general aviation. That was the galvanizing event that brought the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition together and aligned our interests with the city’s. We were side-by-side with Kirk Watson testifying at House and Senate sub-committee meetings. The city’s design consultant, Jim Adams, to his credit, began to realize that ‘Oh, these people are organized and not full of crazy ideas.’ To our credit, we stood by our past work which began to take on a mythological quality of being ‘resolute.’”
As the discussion moved from development history to on the ground projects…

Rick Krivoniak (RK): “Mueller’s first project, a surprise, was Dell Children’s Medical Center, of which I was a little skeptical at first; it is a huge anchor and employer.”

Girard Kinney (GK): “I completely agree that the hospital was a good thing, but I don’t know that the way we got to the hospital was a good process. I think we lucked out. A guiding principle is that the community needs to be involved as the Master Plan changes. Always go back to the community, and that didn’t happen with the hospital.”
As Girard flips through previous Mueller Task Force reports…

GK: “Here it is…the number one on the Re-development Priority Process Statement is ‘Provide for public input that encourages public trust.’ It is the number one thing.”

JW: “Which is what’s eroding a little bit…Mueller still retains a unique level of community engagement. That, however, hasn’t really changed the traditional development approach on projects like the hospital. I give Catellus some benefit of the doubt. I do think that in their closed door meetings, they say ‘ this has to be really well done once we unpack it.’, but consistently with the Home Depot and HEB, they hold on it, and say ‘trust us, trust us…we’re doing the six design principles.’ Then it comes out, and you say, ‘Argh, it could have been better!’ It may be that developers are just incapable of it.”

If this opening article has piqued your curiosity, please join me for future installments in the series as we begin to measure Mueller’s progress against the six Mueller design goals. Stay tuned.

Part 2: Fiscal Responsibility, Economic Development, and East Austin Revitalization. (published Fall 2012)

Girard Kinney (GK): “Well let’s go through these principles and see where it leads.”

Principle #1: Fiscal Responsibility - The Mueller Redevelopment project must create a positive revenue stream that will fund on-site infrastructure and increase the City’s tax base for the benefit of all citizens.

Jim Walker (JW): “My memory of this principle is that Mueller is big enough and its vision is sound such that the city should never have to take money away from other things the city needs to do to pay for anything in Mueller. In the late 90’s, this was important because the business community was picking and choosing pots of public money to put into private ventures.”

GK: “For example, the developer community, on a project of this size, would always choose to ‘pay in lieu of’ for stormwater storage and water quality treatment, and yet Mueller does it onsite. That was a big win.”

JW: “Financially, Mueller came along just the right time…before the dot-com bust…when the city could entertain a 770-acre TIF. (Editor's Note: TIF stands for Tax-Increment Financing, a tool where tax revenue from a place (current and anticipated) can be used to fund land development and infrastructure of that place.) It’s worked. Mueller has never had to go to the city and beg for general revenue or beg out of a social obligation.”

GK: “We had a long range view. We were willing to wait for property and sales tax financing as we projected a 20-year build out. We knew you’d have to develop the houses to justify the retail and develop a balance over time. We knew the developer community would not do it that way.”

JW: “A second part of the principle should be long-term stability. We don’t want to become a Crestview Station or East Avenue or other places the private sector does on a three or four year horizon and it falls apart.”

Principle #2: Economic Development - The project should serve to reinforce Austin’s role in an increasing global marketplace and create a wide range of employment opportunities for a diversity of the community’s citizens.

JW: “There have certainly been some stumbling blocks. In the beginning, I had Catellus leasing people tell me that ‘it’s too hard to get a local coffee shop because they can’t pay what a Starbucks is willing to pay’, but that’s what Mueller’s identity is…taking the extra steps to make it work. Now, we have these hangovers of empty lease space.”

Ken Ronsonette (KR): “As a community, we never got into the business discussions. We stayed away from that. In some ways, I feel like we need to re-form the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition for cases like this. We’re a little smarter now, and we can have these discussions with the developer and say, ‘You need to factor in incentives for local companies’.”

GK: “That said, sometimes social pressures will force a ‘use’ that is probably not going to work financially. I think Catellus has done a good job of simultaneously encouraging local businesses, but also helping them understand what it will be like to function in an environment like this. That may means you’re weeding them out so they don’t go through the agony of realizing that it just wasn’t going to work.”

JW: “Mueller’s economic development opportunities were not solely designed for people that live there. I think that’s one of the huge benefits of the hospital here. It’s not going anywhere, it provides a range of incomes onsite, and there will be support businesses outside of Mueller."

Principle #3: East Austin Revitalization - The project must promote economic development opportunities within East Austin, giving local residents a direct stake in redevelopment.

GK: “I’m prejudiced about one thing here. I’m very proud of the neighborhood-supported vision for 51st Street.” (The 51st Street vision project was a joint design effort of Catellus, McCann Adams Studio, and residents from Windsor Park, Mueller, and Cherrywood.) “I think that will do a great deal for economic development north of 51st Street. The current and future business and developments along 51st and north along Berkman will benefit from the vision. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Value Sky Park in Cherrywood. In what was a remote parking lot for the airport is now transitioning to a multi-family, multi-use development.”

JW: “Mueller is attracting employers and development around it without having to offer heavy incentives. The way economic development often happens in this town is that a company comes in and they ask for a ‘candy list’, and they get it. I like that we’re not needing to do that.”

GK: “Socially, it’s breaking down the I-35 barriers…that was an original goal. I-35 has been a social barrier in many ways, and in general, I think Mueller has done a lot to address that.”

KR: “This is one of the more important principles that was discussed and the intent was that it be keep in the forefront as Mueller evolved. Our thought process was that companies that moved into Mueller should establish programs that reached out to the schools on the east side, and provided training programs that an east Austin resident could advance from. I believe Seton has adopted this principal but as more businesses move in we need to set this out as an expectation of this development”.

Part 3: Design Principles in Practice: Education (published Winter 2013)

(Editor's Note: The conversation was themed around Mueller’s six design principles, but throughout the conversation, education was discussed as a crucible, an area where all principles would be tested in practice. As an educational institution at Mueller is currently being considered by AISD during their bond process, it is valuable to separate these thoughts into a single conversation for the benefit of the Mueller community.)

As a foreword for this discussion on education in Mueller, it may be helpful to understand the neighborhood is currently divided within 2 sets of school attendances zones within AISD. Approximately one-third of the development (most of the current build-out) will attend Maplewood Elementary School, Kealing Middle School, and McCallum High School, while two-thirds of the development (most of the future build out) will attend Blanton Elementary School, Pearce Middle School, and Reagan High School. The conversation begins under the pretext that Mueller’s development has been patterned to delay attendance into the Reagan HS attendance zone.

Rick Krivoniak: “For the first several years of residential development, there had not been a single piece of real estate developed (in the Reagan attendance zone).” (Editor’s Note: Catellus, not present in the conversation, would like to clarify that school boundaries played no role in initial construction patterns, and that utilities and water retention/drainage
were the primary factors in driving construction.)

Girard Kinney: “What I want to think, from the people I know at Mueller and have come to like and respect, is not one of them has ever thought that the school issue is going to affect how we build out, but I don’t know that for certain.”

Jim Walker: “I think when Catellus began to develop the residential areas where they did, they were still under the assumption that AISD would build an elementary school at Mueller sooner rather than later, and that the entire neighborhood would track to McCallum. When it became clear that AISD had not made any decisions on tracking, it also became clear that a new school was not forthcoming. It wouldn’t surprise me that the development stayed (within the McCallum attendance zone) until the school issue settles out. At the same time, Catellus has been involved in Reagan, and residents starting getting involved in Pearce.”

“I would agree that neither Catellus, the Mueller Foundation, nor AISD has addressed the bold question: ‘ Hey, what the heck is Mueller’s impact on the Northeast quadrant education-wise?’ While we have occasionally brain-stormed about it, it has still been this weird dance.”

Rick: “I would give far more credit to Mueller residents for being open and thinking regionally here than to Catellus or AISD.”

Ken Ronsonette: “I agree. That’s the way it should be.”

Jim: “That was a cross-our-fingers hope. We knew we could do all of this planning and visioning, but ‘Who the heck was going to move here?’ Are the Mueller residents going to embrace these principles the same way we have? So far, there have been enough to sustain the effort. The education issue, however, will be a real pH test for East Austin revitalization. For Catellus, for the Mueller residents, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the school district…most importantly the district: How do we ALL conduct ourselves to make a positive impact on Northeast Austin schools and not a negative one?”

“This is difficult when it seems like some in AISD leadership expect it to go negatively, and don't seem to be doing anything to steer it in a positive direction. The redistricting of Mueller out of the East Austin AISD trustee district could be seen as gerrymandering. Clearly those involved in planning Mueller and those living there want to engage with East Austin schools, the redistricting makes that a bit more difficult and may allow stones to be thrown at Mueller by those who believe Mueller doesn't want to be part of East Austin. All we can do is keep trying to prove them wrong.”

“Within the neighborhood, the principles will be tested as we talk about an educational facility at Mueller. The hard part is not how big it should be or which grades it will serve, the questions will be:
Who can attend?
What’s the attendance zone?
Is there an attendance zone or will there be some other way of getting in?
For the Mueller residents who embrace these principles, what happens when you posit to them that not all Mueller kids might get to go?
What if some Mueller kids can’t go to the school, so that other Northeast Austin kids can?”

Girard: “A regional facility, one that serves upper grades, might solve that problem by widening the attendance zone to include both Mueller and non-Mueller schoolchildren.”

Jim: “While that is a good argument that has been made before, whatever the solution is, the issue is ‘how you get there’. The traditional East Austin critics of Mueller have to ‘get it’. It has to be elevated beyond a family’s hope for their own kids. It has to be clear to parents and non-parents that the solution improves the fabric of East Austin education, and the process has to be seen as a Northeast Austin effort.”

Part 4: Compatibility with Surrounding Neighborhoods, Diversity, and Sustainability (published Spring 2013)

Principle #4: Compatibility with Surrounding Neighborhoods: Development must
maintain and enhance the quality of life in adjacent neighborhoods, providing
complementary linkages, land uses and transportation patterns.

Ken Ronsonette (KR): “From Delwood II’s perspective, we’ve been very pleased with the overall approach. The tie-in to the parks system, in particular, is nice. As far as improvements, I think there have been some lessons learned, but many streets lack bike and pedestrian access, forcing more trips by vehicle. I realize some streets are only built out halfway, but I still think that if we know where a bike path or trail is going to eventually be, we could install something to link the area. I hope the Mueller residents would agree and voice that.”

Girard Kinney (GK): “Unfortunately, if it is like elsewhere in the city, you’re not likely to see a sidewalk or path until the adjacent property is being constructed as that is just how it works financially. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do it differently.”

Rick Krivoniak (RK): “There were some other early-slip-ups. The Jughandle has the biggest impact on Windsor Park. (Editor’s Note: The “Jughandle” is a name for current route of northbound traffic from I-35 to 51st through Barbara Jordan and Lancaster . A previous frontage road leading directly to the 51st and Cameron intersection was eliminated, turning a 1500' trip into a 4500' trip for many Windsor Park residents.) With the Jughandle and the Mueller Roundabout, citizens are being asked to fix these with transportation bonds just a few years after they were designed and constructed.”

“Regarding Windsor Park, we may be experiencing more of the negative consequences of Mueller’s development. In addition to the Jughandle, 51st street has many more curb-cuts (driveways) planned than Manor Road or Airport Boulevard. There are as many curb-cuts planned between the water tower and Cameron Road as there are for the rest of Mueller combined. We didn’t really anticipate that, and we may be feeling the consequences as Mueller grows.”
GK: “The 51st street vision plan (funded by a recent transportation bond) will hopefully improve the way the Mueller side addresses the Windsor Park side.”

“While I worry about several transportation issues, I applaud Mueller’s willingness to learn. CycleTracks (reserved bike paths along streets with protection on both sides) are going to be used, and we’ll learn from them. I’m glad we have a roundabout. For its flaws, Mueller’s learning from it, taking it to the next level and I appreciate that.”

RK: “To me, the best part of the Mueller development are the people that have moved there… hands down, that’s it. There are some amazing people that have moved into this community and contributed to the surrounding communities.”

KR: “To further Rick’s point, when Bartholemew Park’s pool was drained several years ago, Mueller let their neighbors know that ‘we’ve got a pool, and it’s open for you.’ Things like that let you know that Mueller has bettered the area.”

Principle #5: Diversity: Redevelopment must offer a wide range of housing choices in order to create a new community of socially and economically diverse residents..

GK: “If there’s one idea that I have been trying to promote around the city and that I would like to promote at Mueller is the idea of even more interspersed housing diversity than is anticipated at Mueller. Everybody agrees that affordable housing should be dispersed, and there should be as much diversity, in all the ways we talk about it (income, race, age, etc), throughout the neighborhood. I know of very little opposition to that idea. The idea is there. We’ve planted the idea successfully.”

“In achieving it, there are some tools that I don’t know for sure exist at Mueller. For instance, can every resident build a granny flat? (Editor: The answer is “No, only lots 45’ or wider can build a separate rental unit over their garage”) Can every resident rent out a room to tenant? (Editor: The answer is “Yes, as long as the total occupancy does not exceed one more than the number of bedrooms”) After World War II, almost all the bungalows built in Austin had an extra room with an external door to rent to servicemen coming back from the war. Making one’s home available, in an affordable way, often allows for a mixture of class, income, and race.”

“That said, I’m still impressed that Mueller really is a laboratory for accomplishing diversity through housing design. People are trying hard, and a lot of new ideas have come from it.”

KR: “Regarding affordability, I think it’s a win that it has been integrated into the neighborhood. You can’t really tell an affordable home from a neighboring market-priced home, and I hope that continues. Where I’m concerned is that I’ve heard rumors that some of the affordable homes are going on the market and not being re-purchased by the Mueller Foundation. Those ‘affordable’ homes are then lost from the program.”

Jim Walker (JW): “Not yet. Maybe one or two are coming that the Foundation will not re-purchase, but it hasn’t happened yet. That said, the amount of subsidy that the Foundation has to put back into the cover the difference between the market and affordable price keeps going up. We are attempting to rise to the challenge to operate the interspersed affordable program to perpetuity.”

“While I don’t think anyone is insinuating this, the diversity principle should NOT be relegated to a discussion of the affordability program. Diversity in income, race, and ethnicity is equally important among all of the market-rate homes as well. We see diversity in the parks and other amenities, but it’s just a hard thing to capture in a new real estate development. Every developer in this city suggests they want to reflect Austin. It is obviously illegal to set quotas for income and race. What’s left is ‘How is this place perceived by people of different cultural backgrounds?’”

GK: “At Mueller, this great experiment, there has to be a hyper-sensitivity to this perception issue. There has to be an over-whelming sense of welcoming to overcome pre-conceived bias.”

Principle #6: Sustainability: Development should be planned in a way that promotes energy and water efficiency, resource protection, reduced auto dependency, watershed protection and green space preservation.

JW: “The fun thing at a PIAC meeting would be to have prepared a model for a subdivision with the same number of units, same square footage of commercial and residential, and mixed-use. Then ask, what would the resource use look like with no LEED or green-building, no Pecan Street Project, with no reclaimed water tower? Are we doing better or aren’t we? Sometimes the intensity of use trumps the conservation measures, but on the whole, I think we’ve done it.”

GK: “I believe Mueller is a key to demonstrating part of a paradigm shift in how people visualize where they live relative to where they work and play.”

JW: “I think we are walking-the-talk of the bigger conversation a half-step in front of it. The virtue of Mueller’s collective process keeps us in front of whatever the big trends are which is why we keep getting recognized. Mueller has become a testing ground for ‘Look, this can be done. We didn’t know the market would accept this (insert sustainability measure here), but it is working in Mueller.”

Part 5: Final Thoughts for the Progeny (published Summer 2013)

Ken Ronsonette (KR): “Prior to the initial Mueller design, our neighborhood (Delwood II) came up with a list of things that we were hoping to see. That’s when we realized that we had a stake in this, and we knew we had to work together with other neighborhoods as well, and we did.”

“The bottom line is all of us who live in this area need to stay involved. Whether it’s the school issue or UT’s land at Mueller, the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition (Mueller and its surrounding neighborhoods) should continue to exist into the future. The concept that Mueller was neighbor-derived is valuable to me, and it’s what we should bring to future development as well. The concept that if you work together you get a lot more out of the effort than what you can accomplish yourself.”

Girard Kinney (GK): “I think we’re doing many of the things I’d recommend. Keeping the focus on the design principles, re-visiting them for their continued relevance, and amending them as necessary.”

“Take ‘Sustainability’…often considered an energy or environmental issue. If Mueller is to be a sustainable neighborhood, then that needs to encompass social issues as well. That’s a big thing. Economic development is important because that is a part of sustainability. It’s not just green building.

On the topic of green building, however, I think we can go even farther if we had more custom homes of all sizes. In sustainability, architects are on the cutting edge of many of these trends. A lot of the more modern structures, which we are not seeing at Mueller, incorporate features not seen in the current Mueller homes. I worry that the builders aren’t as curious.”

Rick Krivoniak (RK): “I think there were certainly some housing lessons from the first phases of Mueller. Going forward, I’d like to see more consideration given to architectural variety, accessibility through the front of homes, and increased solar orientation of rooftops.”

“I also want to share the idea that we keep learning and evolving. Windsor Park has certainly had its share of challenges with Mueller’s development. Through the Mueller Commission and the 51st Street vision project, we’ve had the avenues to share, learn, and adapt Mueller’s design to new challenges. We’re only at the halfway point of Mueller’s design and construction. Let’s keep learning together.”

Jim Walker (JW): “I know it's said a lot, but I think the Mueller process is the source of what has worked here, and what will help it continue to develop in an aspirational way. Fifteen years ago, we were doing our best visioning given the information available and our best guesses about what the future would bring (like rail for instance), but things change constantly.”

“I like that we have established a culture between neighbors around and in Mueller, the developer and the City that even if we collectively do something later seems like a mistake, like the Jughandle, or not putting the substation on Mueller land, or not securing the school investment much earlier, or not preventing the housing price gap. I know everyone has something they wish was done differently, but we have a shared commitment to a process to discuss and push potential solutions. It may not work in all situations, but it seems to be working pretty damn well.”
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