On a city map, the local airport often shows up as essentially a big blank space. Airports sit apart from their cities, ringed by access roads, surrounded by intimidating infrastructure — a special kind of wasteland.
That’s one of the reasons that the transformation of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, in Austin, Texas, is so remarkable. On the 700-acre site where planes took off and landed until 1999, an entire new mixed-use master-planned community is being constructed from scratch, through a public-private partnership agreement between the city of Austin and Catellus Development Group.
The development, known simply as Mueller, is being built in phases; so far, about 2,500 residences are either complete or under construction. When it’s all done, Mueller will be home to some 13,000 people.
The vision for Mueller, developed over several years of consultation with community and civic leaders, is ambitious: “To create a district that would be a model for responsible urban development – an alternative to land-consumptive and automobile-dependent development patterns throughout the region that could influence the form and pattern of growth within Austin.”
The mix of housing available includes row houses, condominiums, detached single-family homes, garden court homes, shop houses, apartment buildings with extensive amenities, and larger buildings that look like single-family homes from the outside, but actually contain between four and six units.
The community that is taking shape is the result of many years of planning, and it shows in the emerging character of the place, says Deanne Desjardin, vice president of marketing for Catellus. “Inherent in what kind of community Mueller is, is the legacy that it has with community involvement,” she says. “It actually started with the neighborhoods surrounding the site engaging the city in a conversation about the operating airport in the ’80s,” says Desjardin. “That grew and progressed into hundreds of public meetings that engaged people from all walks of life in a discussion of what the city could do. The spirit of that has been really powerful because the early residents shared that vision. They were already connected.”
That connection is manifested and enhanced by Mueller’s design. “The physical landscape of Mueller has an intentionality about people being connected,” says Desjardin. “People sitting on their porches connect with people on their sidewalks. People are meeting their neighbors in the park.”
Twenty-five percent of all the homes developed at Mueller are reserved as affordable housing, set aside for both owners, who make less than 80 percent of Austin’s median income, and renters, who earn less than 60 percent of the median. The affordable housing is not segregated in one section of the development, but rather incorporated throughout its pleasant, walkable streets. About half the available units will ultimately be rentals.
The demand for housing in Austin is intense. The Texas capital and its suburbs are among the fastest-growing municipalities of their size in the nation, and Austin itself gained 21,000 residents in 2013, bringing its population to just over 880,000. Many of the city’s new residents are young and looking for the kind of walkable community that is coming together here. Apartments at Mueller have about a 90 percent occupancy rate. Older residents are attracted to the convenient lifestyle as well, and according to management, there is often a waiting list for the predominantly affordable multifamily for people over 55.
The Mueller development is three miles from downtown, and while there are no mass transit connections to the heart of the city just yet, the community is designed to facilitate access to such transportation in the future. Bike paths, sidewalks, and walking trails are all incorporated.
Mueller also aims to reduce auto dependency by becoming a community that residents won’t have to leave in order to get the services and amenities they want. Already, it is home to the Dell Children’s Medical Center, the Austin Film Studios, a children’s museum, and the Austin ISD Performing Arts Center. It has a major grocery store and a growing number of restaurants and fast-food outlets.
With a focus on green space and sustainability, the development will ultimately preserve 20 percent of the land and include several parks. Builders are using native plants for landscaping, and recycled “gray water” will be used for watering. Developers will plant a total of 15,000 trees at the site, and is preserving some rare native landscape in collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Foundation.
Driving around the streets of Mueller is a unique chance to see a multifaceted and thoughtful plan come into being. There are plenty of blank spaces still on the slate, but it is filling in nicely.