Why I’m Hard on Mueller

and note, I’m far from the only one.
Also please excuse the brevity – I’m doing this from a Wendy’s in Huntsville during a short lunch break.

Breathless media coverage from the Statesman makes you think that Mueller is the wildest dreams of urbanites and environmentalists and sustainable-liviing fans all come to life. Meanwhile, every time I raise some (informed, compared to most) criticism of Mueller, I get personal attacks in return. At times like this, I like to remind myself (and hopefully others) of the substantive, objective, reasons why Mueller presents us with problems.

1. It’s not dense enough. As Chris has pointed out more than once, the single-family homes are, mostly, too far to walk to retail; and there’s not enough multi-family to make up the difference. This objection is in the process of being partially addressed, but there’s still a long ways to go – the Town Center itself is likely to be less dense than the Triangle, which isn’t all that dense.
2. They built the wrong stuff first. If you’re trying to show your commitment to new urbanism, you don’t lead with strip malls and then follow with strictly segregated single-family uses. You start with something that shows some commitment to urbanism. Yes, it may be a little bit more financially difficult – but we already have about eight million rules on this thing about how it must be developed – what’s one more that might actually do some good? You start with apartments and the Town Center first, if you want to show you’re really serious; period.
3. There’s too much planning – you don’t get vibrant urban neighborhoods by declaring that these streets will only have single-family houses; these streets will have garage apartments; and the multifamily will be way over there. A lot of people get this wrong – this is how you get vibrant suburban neighborhoods.
4. Bicycle access, to, through, and within Mueller is a disaster. This is something that I and the rest of the UTC were attempting to get them to address way back in 2000-2001, to no avail. Bicycles for transportation are paid lip service; just try to get in there across Airport Blvd, for instance. If you’re going to lay out your new suburb so that most single-family residents are too far away to walk to any retail, bicycle access is even more important than typical. Unfortunately, bicycle provisions, even inside the development, are largely of the “well, won’t they just want to ride trails or sidewalks?” variety.
5. It’s actually hurting transit access to some critical destinations – things like the hospitals and their offices that have moved out of downtown and to Mueller. Yes, you can get to Mueller on the bus, but it’s going to involve transfers. You may not ever want to, but many employees used to use transit to get to work (and some probably still do, although with a much higher pain-in-the-ass quotient). The buildings also have a lot more surface parking and a lot less garage parking than they their old locations did. How is that sustainable in this day and age?
So why does this all matter, anyways?
Mueller is devaluing the brand of new urbanism in Austin. That’s a brand that I, and many others, view as critical for bringing Austin into a more sustainable future – the kind which might save us from the awful suburban crap that I’m stuck in while I type this. If people keep hearing how wonderful Mueller is, in terms that make it clear that it’s supposed to be an example of urban, sustainable, living; and then they see a bunch of single-family houses on small lots, a bunch of empty space, an apartment complex by itself, a bunch of midrise office buildings, and then some strip retail; what are they going to say?
Well, we don’t have to theorize. Here’s two representative comments from the Statesman itself:

Why did they build that ugly stripcenter first? That place is always empty.

and, from another article I happened to read of recent and local interest:

Hopefully it will be a bit more authentic of an urban development than the Domain or Mueller (a little slice of Pflugerville in the middle of Austin) turned out.

How do you think stuff like that is going to impact the efforts of myself and others to get neighborhoods to accept urban infill in the future? Especially those who think this really IS what ‘urban development’ is supposed to look like – how can I get somebody who has swallows the ANC platform hook-line-sinker to accept “a little slice of Pflugerville in the middle of Austin” on a brownfield tract? They’re going to (correctly, for the most part) assume that most everybody living there is going to have to drive to work and shopping, thus bringing nothing but negatives for the surrounding area.
And, pre-emptive strike here: Please don’t make any of the following rebuttals:
1. I’d walk that far to get to retail. Guess what? This stuff is pretty easy to figure out – most people will walk <5 minutes for groceries; 5-10 minutes for a few other things; and hardly any will go farther than that for anything but an excursion where the walk is more the point than the shopping. 2. Mueller isn’t supposed to be the poster-boy for new urbanism. You’re wrong; it was; and more importantly, it is now, with quotes like these from the Statesman:

But the project is on track to meet the ambitious goals set by city leaders and neighborhood groups, which envisioned an urban design and environmental showcase, where families with a wide range of incomes could live in compact, close-knit neighborhoods and walk to nearby jobs, services and parks.”

3. Well, come to the meetings and we’ll listen to you! – if they didn’t listen when voices like mine on the UTC said most of these things, they damn well aren’t going to listen to a private citizen when so many others have drank the Kool-Aid. This is a standard tactic to deflect criticism – basically, get people to waste their time in consensus-driven exercises where most of the time the output is ignored anyways, and educated, but contrary, positions are never truly welcome.
4. It’s not supposed to be as dense as the Triangle. Note: I said that the Town Center, which is supposed to be the dense heart of the urban development is apparently planned to be less dense than the entire Triangle. I’m not comparing to Mueller overall – I’m comparing to what’s supposed to be the densest part of Mueller.
5. The Town Center will fix everything! – even IF it’s built and IF it’s built as currently planned, it’s too small and too far away from most residences in Mueller. More retail spread out through the neighborhoods would help – a true new urbanist development would not have so much strict segregation of single-family. But, more importantly, open up a newspaper: the real estate industry is in an unprecedented collapse. I’m just amazed, although perhaps I shouldn’t be, that so many Muellerites naively trust that the Town Center will definitely happen any day now, and definitely as planned. They think it’s ridiculous to use words like “if it’s built”.

Really? You really think there’s not a non-trivial chance that a big REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER might have some money problems in the foreseeable future, or that a development that relies on attracting RETAIL TENANTS might not have some trouble, given the disasters underway in both sectors?

15 Replies to “Why I’m Hard on Mueller”

  1. This is all spot-on. I live within walking distance (as I define it) of Mueller, and my wife and I frequently go for walks around there. Our joint opinion is that it is less awful than it might have been, but that it is overwhelmingly a case of missed opportunities—in terms of architecture, environmentalism, and urban design.

  2. Adam,
    Thanks for the sanity reinforcement. The attacks on the muellercommunity forum are so unanimous and so personal and bitter that I do sometimes have my doubts whether I’m too rough on the product.

  3. “How do you think stuff like that is going to impact the efforts of myself and others to get neighborhoods to accept urban infill in the future? Especially those who think this really IS what ‘urban development’ is supposed to look like . . .”
    The ANC/NIMBY types, even the borderline ones, will never be persuaded to take dense multi-family infill over single-family. The heirarchy from most to least desirable:
    A few single-family
    A few more than that
    A few multi-family units, suitably barricaded/isolated from the homeowners
    Any more than that . . . over my dead body.
    My neighborhood leaders have raised traffic objections to density increases from 14 to 18 units. They’ll never accept infill density willingly.

  4. I poorly phrased that section (I was eating fries while trying to get the posting done and get back to the office here so I could hitch a ride to another office for a conference call).
    Phrased better:
    The ANC types will seize upon Mueller as an excuse not to support any future infill, and the argument will be more compelling than it should be because of how Mueller turned out and how it’s being marketed as a new urbanist development.
    (The ANC ends up having to convince people who don’t know better but can be swayed either way on many such cases).

  5. I of course agree that there’s too much single-family and too much segregation of housing types, and have said so.
    I don’t fault Catellus for the development sequence, though. Single-family homes are less risky and it knew they would sell. Building a Town Center that would have stood empty wouldn’t have benefited anyone. On the contrary, it might have scared other developers off.
    There has been at least some multi-family. Simmons Vedder has almost finished a condo development on Airport at the Mueller entrance.

  6. I don’t give any credit for the multi-family; it happened after one (maybe two) phases of single-family.
    And again, although I understand the economic rationale, a developer who believed new urbanism was important would have started with the Town Center and the multifamily, not the strip mall and single-family. It betrays their real priorities (lip service to urbanism, IMO).

  7. re: bicycle facilities… I think it’s funny that a brand new connector road was paved in a NU community without bike lanes (Mueller Blvd). I realize that road is only half built, but wouldn’t it have been zero extra cost to add bike lanes… even if they’re only temporary?

  8. That does betray a bit of the mindset, doesn’t it?
    I’d be afraid to ride a bike in Mueller the next couple years anyways with all the construction debris waiting to puncture tires, but the long-range plan isn’t any better (Tom Wald at LOBV is trying real hard to fix this, but given my past experience with the Mueller folks, he’s got an uphill battle ahead of him).

  9. So M1ke, unless you are selling your house and moving into an apartment or condo don’t you find your insistence the the little people should not want to live the way you do just a little hypocritical?

  10. Re: bike access: http://www.lobv.org/mueller/Mueller_2008-08-07.pdf
    Jim, spare the right-wing talking-points, please. The only people trying to tell other people how to live are the suburbanites like you who restrict density to an artificially low level through zoning. If I had my way, Mueller would have been far less planned; but far more dense in likely outcome — simply by setting more generous maximum density and height throughout, and then letting developers/property owners decide how much of that allowance to use.

  11. ugh, I hate the comments on that article about the Highland Dillard’s. People are so idiotic if they think that mall is in the Ghetto. Seriously? It’s right next to Highland Park & Crestview people. I just can’t stand the racism going on there.
    For the record, I work at Highland Mall Macy’s and we have NOT closed down most of the second floor as claimed by someone in the comments. Dillard’s closed their third and fourth floors, but we haven’t closed anything.
    People in the Macy’s ask all the time when we are closing. Crap like that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, although from what I know the Macy’s is still doing pretty well.

  12. M1EK: I think you are judging Catellus too harshly regarding the decision to build strip retail and single family ahead of town center and m/f. I don’t think one should discount the economic rationale as easily as you do.
    As I understand, the NE corner of the project (where big-box retail now resides) was always envisioned as a “cash register” to kickstart the entire project, helping pay for the massive amount of initial infrastructure: lake park, SW & NW greenways, neighborhood park w/ pool, utilities, roads, etc. This cash register story is what Jim Walker and Greg Weaver told an audience at the CNU conference last year. According to the, they originally envisioned office there, but switched to retail when the office market soured. Regardless of whether retail or office was built in the NE corner fronting I-35, the parcel was always viewed as an economically necessary starting point in order to begin paying for infrastructure throughout the development.
    Would it have been possible to build the town center and m/f first? I don’t know and neither do you. Catellus probably doesn’t either. But building strip retail and single-family for getting revenue in the door to pay for infrastructure. I do not fault them for that. And I certainly would not say it belies their real priorities.

  13. I just got done making the following comment to AC’s blog post:
    The most important thing about the East Ave project is to remember it the next time a Mueller apologist claims the ‘regional retail’ is all we could have expected for a parcel fronting I-35.
    What are the odds.
    Jim and Greg can say whatever they like – but it betrays a lack of belief in the staying power of urban development. The Triangle is generating plenty of sales tax revenue – and they built their conventional strip-mall component second!

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