Mueller was supposed to demonstrate that a compact, walkable, mixed-use development can flourish even in Austin. It was to be a sort of New Urbanist proving ground. The Mueller web site even invokes New Urbanism as its guiding philosophy:
New Urbanism is an approach to land planning that reduces traffic and eliminates sprawl. A New Urbanist neighborhood resembles an old European village or pre-war U.S. small town with homes and businesses clustered together. Instead of driving on highways, residents of New Urbanist neighborhoods can walk to shops, businesses, theaters, schools, parks and other important services. Buildings and recreational areas are arranged to foster a sense of community closeness. New Urbanist designers also place importance on earth-friendly architecture, energy conservation, historic preservation and accessibility.
Mueller is a very pleasant -- and popular -- development. There's a lot that's been done well there, particularly the open space and the architecture. But it's become increasingly difficult to call it "urbanist," New or otherwise. In too many ways, it is a standard suburban product with New Urbanist trim.
The latest case in point is the new H-E-B and surrounding "Market District." Back in 2011, when the plan was announced, I thought it was disappointingly suburban. The development's now complete and it matches my expectations.
To orient you, here is the latest Mueller master plan for the Market District:
The "Market District" meets all the criteria of a standard suburban strip center: a low floor-to-area ratio (perhaps 25%?); a parking lot-to-building ratio exceeding 1:1; and internal "streets" consisting entirely of parking lots and the aisles and driveways connecting them. And it is all single-story, single-use: no office or residential.
Like everything else at Mueller, it's a very nice strip center. It has nice sidewalks. It has nice architecture. It has nice landscaping. It's a very nice design, on the whole. (And it's green!) It's just a suburban, car-oriented design. There's nothing urban about it, unless we are using "urban" in its broadest sense to mean "within a city."
Ditto with the H-E-B. It will be a very nice H-E-B. (And super-duper green!) And it looks like H-E-B spent an unusually large amount of money on the building design and architectrual features, like the dramatic, sweeping canopy that is supposed to evoke the old Mueller terminal. I know Muellerites and east Austinites in the area are excited about the H-E-B.
But viewed on foot from the surrounding streets, it's just a big grocery store behind a big parking lot.
Here's the view from the entrance on 51st Street (point A on the map above):
Here's the view from the entrance to the parking lot that fronts the store (B), the "real" entrance:
And here's the view from the corner of Berkman Drive, Mueller's main thoroughfare, and Barbara Jordan Boulevard (C):
None of these offers a particularly inviting walk to pedestrians. The H-E-B was positioned on this site about as far from the streets -- and customers arriving on foot -- as possible. It's almost as if H-E-B expects to cater almost exclusively to customers arriving by car.
If you scroll back up to the Master Plan, you'll see that it calls for a new street, Philomena, to be built directly behind the store. The street does not yet exist. Theoretically, Philomena could serve as the pedestrian entrance to the store. It will not, though. It will not because it cannot: the rear of the store lacks a public entrance. That, and H-E-B's built a 10-foot brick wall along the back, separating the rear of the store from the future Philomena.
The view of The Wall from the southwest corner (E):
and from the southeast corner (F):
I'm sure this conspicuously expensive brick wall (Mueller is very nice!) was not built specifically to keep out pedestrians. Its purpose rather is to screen the store from the single family homes or row homes that will eventually line Philomena. But putting an impenetrable barrier between the store and the closest street does not exactly enhance the store's pedestrian appeal.
The store will offer outdoor cafe seating, but it's hard to imagine a boisterous cafe here enlivening the street. Mainly because it doesn't adjoin a street; it sits directly across from another parking lot. Which I suppose explains the need for the brightly colored screens you can see pictured below -- to distract from the parking lot across the way -- and the prominent concrete planters -- to protect the diners from parking lot traffic.
The best pedestrian approach is from Berkman, due west of the store. Some day, there will be shops on both sides of the street here. I can't tell yet whether there will be any actual public entrances into the shops from this street, but at least there will be some shade:
And that's about it as far as pedestrian amenities go, aside from sidewalks. Pedestrians who approach H-E-B along this one very specific route will get to walk by some stuff. Again, this is not a store that plans on selling much stuff to people arriving on foot.
I'll bet the H-E-B sells more stuff through it's drive-through pharmacy than it sells to pedestrians:
The takeaway here shouldn't be, "H-E-B doesn't know good urban design." No, the takeaway should be that H-E-B, which certainly knows its markets, has pegged Mueller as a thoroughly suburban market rather than a true mixed-use community with a lot of pedestrian traffic.
I'm sure H-E-B is correct. But that raises a separate question: Why would we make a place that can't support even a minimally urban grocery store the anchor for Austin's first urban rail line?
Update: I originally showed point "A" at the wrong location on the Master Plan, above. Fixed.