There is a lot to like about Mueller. The streets are laid out in a grid with short, walkable blocks. Homes address the street. Garages are relegated to rear alleys. Row houses frame key streets. Strategically placed -- and excellent -- parks and green spaces have drawn families with kids who otherwise would have been put off by the tiny yards. Thanks to the eclectic mix of home sizes and styles and the insistence on an "Austin" architecture, Mueller's streets lack the dreary blandness that marks most new subdivisions.
Mueller is not perfect, though. Too much of the development's acreage is devoted to single-family homes. The housing types are overly segregated -- multi-family, in particular, has been shunted to the periphery, away from the single-family homes. It's unclear whether some of the more innovative housing types ("Mueller" homes, in particular) will be built. And I was one of the first to point out that most single-family homes will be too far from retail uses for a comfortable walk.
But Catellus, the master developer, and Roma, which developed the master plan, are working to fix an even more serious flaw: Mueller's Town Center.
Mueller is supposed to be the resurrection of the traditional urban form, abandoned after World War II with the introduction of mass-produced suburbs. It's supposed to ba a throwback --"throwback," ironically, being the core principle of "New" Urbanism. Mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented main streets that meld seamlessly into surrounding neighborhoods.
Mueller must have a vibrant town center to succeed. True, the residential streets will be pleasant enough even if the Town Center is never built. But the community will lack a focal point; one can't have a village without a village center. Mueller will renege on its promise to provide an alternative to frontage-road strip malls.
There's something more at stake. Is this form even viable in Austin? Can the town center model compete with strip malls on four- and six-lane corridors? After all, strip malls haven't become the dominant commercial form by accident. They cater to the automobile. A lot of people want something else. It's just not clear that that something else is feasible today. Mueller is an important test.
It was thus worrisome that the 2004 master plan set up the Town Center to fail. It had too much surface parking. It was not dense enough. It was too small, perhaps too small to be viable. A retail center needs a critical mass to be self-sustaining, even when there are apartments upstairs.
But perhaps the biggest flaw in the design was the lack of density around the Town Center. The master plan had Town Center surrounded on three sides by low-density, single-family housing. That design more or less guaranteed that Town Center would see little foot traffic. That, in turn, meant that Town Center would have needed lots of parking to have a chance at being viable. But that would have defeated the whole point of the Town Center.
Setting aside the large tract to the north of Town Center for single-family housing (outlined in red below) was particularly senseless:
Roma's three-dimensional model below vividly illustrates the problem. Dell Children's Hospital is just around the corner from the site of the Town Center. Other commercial and office uses have sprung up around Dell. This intense employment node will feed a steady stream of foot traffic into Town Center. But plunking down a single-family tract to the north of Town Center and to the east of Dell would smother the development of both. The single-family homes would prevent offices from spilling over to the north of Town Center, and they would prevent Town Center from expanding north to accommodate additional demand. That would be a shame because the juncture of a vibrant employment center and retail center is a perfect place for dense, mixed-use multi-family.
Catellus and Roma want to fix this. They are asking City Council for permission to modify the Mueller PUD by substituting mixed-use and office space for single-family homes in the tract outlined in blue.
This request is no doubt being driven by Mueller's success in attracting employment. In addition to Dell Children's Medical Center, it has drawn Seton's administrative headquarters, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, the University of Texas Health Research Campus, and other smaller medical offices. Mueller is turning into an important health care center.
These employment centers are within walking distance of the town center. Dell is just around the corner and the others are only three or four blocks away. Amending the PUD will allow the Town Center and these employment centers to feed synergistically on one another. The Town Center will be allowed to achieve the critical mass it needs to survive; the nearby jobs will allow it to reach this critical mass without adding a few acres of parking. If Catellus is smart, it will allow the Town Center to fill up with uses that cater to office workers as much as residents. Office workers don't need Paris-style bistros; they need dry cleaners, drug stores and cheap places to eat lunch.
And the neighborhood to the north might just evolve into a true urban neighborhood: offices mixed with retail mixed with apartments and condos; different uses blending seamlessly into one another. Amending the PUD might do more than ensure that the Town Center gets built. It might allow it to thrive.