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.
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?