Depressed at Mueller prices I drove the nearby neighborhoods and found some aesthetic relief, if no hopeful signs for my wallet.
Check out Greenview Row, "a new concept in urban living located in the heart of burgeoning East Austin... within walking and biking distance to parks, the proposed commuter MetroRail stop, and the cafés and shops of the Mueller district."
It's located at Lovell Drive and Windy Brook, just across Manor from the easternmost point of Mueller. These are compact houses on small lots but backing onto what the developer is calling "greenbelt". If you imagine the garage being hidden as at Mueller (impossible while preserving the greenbelt access, of course), then personally I'd find their clean lines much more appealing than all the tacky detailing in the Mueller elevations.
There's plenty at Greenview Row to question. There's no sign that they're green built although the name and style might be intended to make one jump to that conclusion. I'd want to be sure of the preservation status of the "greenbelt" (described in the brochure as "views of Tannehill Branch Creek"), and in particular of what residents will see in the future across the creek to the west of Windy Brook. "Walking distance" to the Metro stop on Manor Road west of Airport is quite a stretch (Google Maps puts it at 1.5 miles), and pedestrian access to Mueller would require crossing a busy spot on Manor unless there are plans for a new stoplight there. Worst of all, the price tag -- starting at $259,00 for a 2/2.5 on a micro lot, before upgrades -- is no bargain even next to Mueller.
Still, if you squint and mentally subtract the garages, Greenview Row might give you some idea of the scale of the smaller Mueller yard houses, as well as what Mueller could look like with a slightly more modern design aesthetic. The first of many such developments in northeast Austin, I suspect.
A driveby is also intriguing from a sociological perspective. Up the hill, the same developers did a previous phase of similarly-scaled but less ambitiously styled houses which I'd wager were a bargain when they were built. Closer to Mueller on Lovell are older ranch-style houses, some of which have the signs of run-down rentals; can we expect them to they be fixed up and flipped soon? Winding north along Windy Brook there's a stretch of ranch houses in better shape, some of which also seem to offer creek views. Then, close to Manor and 51st, is the long winding dead end of Blueberry Trail, most run-down of all, which starts to feel spookily claustrophobic the further you get from the exit. Spitting distance from Greenview Row for the mockingbirds, but miles and miles in real estate terms.
If I had buckets of money, I'd try to grab one of the ranch houses with acreage slightly to the east off Pecan Springs Road. I saw one on a couple of wooded acres with an almost-liveable 2/1 go by for $250K last spring. Imagine a real greenbelt connecting Pecan Springs to Mueller! Old home on the range with new urbanist amenities a bike ride away, for less than downtown condo prices. A nice dream...
At Tuesday's Mueller meeting, Jim Adams of ROMA Design had troubling things to say about grocery stores.
He repeated what I've heard from other sources, that Catellus is having trouble finding a small grocer willing to be located in the "Town Center" north of Lake Park. Donna Carter and Jim Walker of the Mueller Advisory Commission said they found that surprising, given the Statesman article this week on the boom in small groceries [mirror]. Although Catellus says they've been beating the bushes for someone willing to open an 18,000 sf market, I have to wonder who they've been talking to and, maybe more importantly, the specifics of the deal they're offering. Surely a Fresh Plus or one of the many new boutique grocers in the Statesman article would care about the rent at least as much about the square footage. (Not to mention a Michoacana Meat Market, another booming category of small grocers omitted from the Statesman article!)
Meanwhile, in a report on recent changes in the Mueller plan, Adams said that some land swaps at the northern edge of Mueller have freed up enough space at Berkman and 51st for a full-sized supermarket. He showed a conceptual plan for a 140,000 sf supermarket surrounded by loft housing, small shops, and office space for companies that want to be near the Austin Film Society. They're calling this new area the "Market District" (as opposed to the "Town Center", the "Southern Gateway" at Berkman and Manor, and the "Regional Retail" on I-35).
Members of the Commission didn't seem impressed with ROMA's proposal. They pointed out that a full supermarket might reduce Mueller residents' car trips outside the neighborhood somewhat but it would also increase car trips into the neighborhood, probably resulting in a net increase in Mueller's overall traffic impact. Jim Walker asked whether we're really coming up with new, more sustainable retail models or just tinkering with old ones.
No one mentioned that there are already two full-sized supermarkets within a mile of Mueller (Fiesta and the Hancock HEB), plus Target in Capitol Plaza. None of them are particularly walkable, but how many Muellerites will walk to do their full-scale, big-cart, jumbo-toilet-paper shopping anyway? If the area really needs another traditional car-centric supermarket, I'd say it belongs with the Regional Retail.
As others have noted, what seems to be missing from the plan on the table is true neighborhood retail and dining within easy walking distance of the eastern residential portion of Mueller. A scaled-down Market District at Berkman and 51st would help. But there should also be neighborhood retail -- at least a bodega-sized convenience store and a coffeeshop -- on Berkman near Manor. So far all that's scheduled for this Southern Gateway is apartments, although one Catellus person I spoke to said that's to be driven by what the apartment developers come to them with.
I have two modest proposals:
I could only attend an hour of the Mueller Commission meeting. It was not the informal session of a few regulars that I expected, but a packed and serious room. Unfortunately the agenda was packed, too, so I had to leave before citizen communication started. Even though we Mueller malcontents couldn't get up and rant, I was impressed that Jim Walker and other Commission members seemed to be aware of some of the issues recently raised in the blogosphere, and I feel more hopeful about the process as a result. (Okay, M1ek, call me a dupe. :-) )
P.S. Don't miss the Mueller update in this week's Chronicle.
Tuesday and Wednesday I made it into Mueller Central and an affordable home seminar offered by Catellus and David Weekley.
Everyone I talked to was very nice and took a lot of time to answer my questions. I got a a map [PDF] which ends the mystery about the layout of phase 1, and an approximate price list by builder.
The layout: Phase 1 of the Mueller Pioneer lottery process will be built in two sub-phases, 1a and 1b, to be completed a few months apart. Phase 1b will also include a "neighborhood park and amenity center" with an olympic lap pool. I was right about the location of the garden homes at Camacho and Moreno streets, and that there are just a few of them as an experiment. Builders are assigned entire blocks, which concerns me a bit; even though each builder has a couple of floor plans and several facades, there would have been more variety if they'd mixed the builders up within each block. On the plus side, Weekley's "affordable" and "market rate" yard houses will be mixed (but not their row houses). Interestingly, one block facing the lake park has been reserved for custom homes, which I'd guess will be $1M and higher given that the Streetman houses are in the upper $500K+ range.
Prices and counts: Contrary to what I reported the other day, yard houses from Davd Weekley and Meritage should start in the mid-$240K range. Specific prices are to come from the builders, but even those are not yet fixed; a David Weekley rep at the affordability seminar told me that they have to get their plans through the architectural review first, which may or may not happen before the end of April when the Pioneer program closes! So Pioneers have to choose a builder and category (yard vs. row house) on the basis of an approximate price and an approximate floor plan.
Here's the approximate price and count for each house style -- this is from the handout they gave me and will be subject to change! Watch MuellerAustin for the official word.
Builder Type Count Price range David Weekley Market-rate row houses 23 from the low $200,000's David Weekley Market-rate yard houses 69 from the low to mid $200,000's David Weekley Affordable row houses 40 from the $120,000's David Weekley Affordable yard houses 31 from the $140,000's Meritage Yard houses 52 from the $240,000's Muskin Garden court houses 6 from the $280,000's Saldaña Garden court houses 6 from the $200,000's Standard Pacific Yard houses 84 from the $330,000's Streetman Yard houses 37 from the $500,000's
I'm no bookie, but based on these numbers my guess is that the demand relative to the supply will be most intense for affordable yard houses and from there it will be inversely related to price. New urbanist and green built or not, my hunch is that the intensity of interest in Mueller is primarily price-driven. If you can afford it, your best bet in the lottery may be on the Streetman or Standard Pacific higher-end models. It will be interesting to see how the actual signup/inventory ratios turn out for each category. (Idea: This might be a job for a prediction market, assuming prediction markets can handle complex multi-variable systems like this. I should talk to Ed Vielmetti.)
Phase 1 is the first of nine phases to be completed over ten years (yes, count 'em, ten years). The Town Center is not to be built until phase 3, which will disappoint the people interested in live/work and shop houses. The apartments at the south end of Mueller will be built in phase 2 or 3 as well, and so far there's no word on what their design will be like. (Let me make a pessimistic guess: can you say Triangle?)
Mueller's unveiling of plans and prices is in 10 minutes, but it's for "builders, dignitaries and media" only, scruffy self-described bloggers not included.
Part of me wants to crash it anyway (hint: if you walk in from the lake side there's no one to stop you), but instead I'll stay home and obsess about the info on the Mueller website, which is also supposed to be revealed at 10:30. As a rehearsal for back-channel chatter at SXSW, feel free to IM or Twitter me if you see anything interesting. Reload this page for updates. And see my Flickr set for my recent Mueller rambles.
11:05 am: Nothing yet. Where's my Semantic Web enabled service animal who'll bark when the Catellus site updates?
11:11 am: A friend with more gatecrashing cojones than me says the dignitaries have left already. That was quick. She couldn't score a media packet.
11:26 am: Nada. I feel like I'm standing in line for a Wii.
11:30 am: The story and a photo gallery are up at the Statesman. Yard houses are $480K to $650K; "garden" homes with shared greenspace are in the upper $200K and above range; the "affordable" houses appear to be one-story cottages; the row houses have lots of gables and inset porches, quite unlike Texas townhomes or "urban" stoop houses.
11:37 am: Catellus's own builder pages are up.
The builders: David Weekley, Meritage, Muskin, Saldaña, Standard Pacific and Streetman. Weekley and Standard Pacific are national, Meritage appears to be statewide, and Muskin, Saldaña and Streetman seem to be local.Hmm -- I don't see a price list. Anybody found one?
David Weekley got the "affordable" houses, which include row houses and small yard houses. The latter include the option of a third bedroom. I predict those will be in high demand.
Notably, there are non-"affordable" row houses as well, which sounds like a good thing to me -- for the row-house concept to become accepted in Austin, it would be better that it not become strictly identified with "affordable" status.
The Weekley and Meritage model names are a hoot. SoCo, Willie, Antone, Keeton, Benson, Armstrong... I hope they're paying royalties to certain people's favorite charities. Standard Pacific and Streetman went with UT dorm names (but no Jester!) and downtown river streets.
There's not a lick of modernist sensibility in anything, at least not in the exteriors. Meritage's blurb does mention "contemporary urban elements and traditional neighborhood design," which I don't see in the elevations, so I guess they're referring to the open floor plan and the granite and stainless steel in the kitchens. Those of us who were dreaming of a sprinkling of Agave aesthetic at Mueller can dream on.
Maybe an even more experimental take on affordability through density is the "garden court" houses, which share greenspace around a common courtyard. There are 12 models of garden court houses from two builders, Muskin and Saldaña, and I only see one spot for a garden court on the phase 1 builder map. Are they just going to build one of each in phase 1 and see what the demand is like?
(Turns out that yes, a site plan on the Saldaña site shows all six of their houses lined up in a row off of Camacho Street.)
I'm torn about the garden court concept. I love the idea of shared green space in theory -- a principle which Mueller follows on a macro level by having small yards and lots of park space -- but between rugged Texas individualism and the real estate maxim that "they don't make more dirt," it's not clear how many people would prefer to share their yards given a choice. A great deal depends on the details: How is it to be designed? Who will maintain it? What rules govern its use? Are the rules formalized through a land trust or covenants?
All of which connects to an even larger question which I haven't heard addressed at all: will Mueller have a homeowners' association? Is it going to have bylaws in place at the outset or will the first crop of homeowners self-organize? What is membership likely to cost? Will "affordable" residents pay "affordable" dues? And maybe most importantly, will it have the authority to tell me what color I can paint my house?
An iSchool classmate of mine is doing a study of the information needs of prospective residents, neighbors and small business owners in the Mueller neighborhood. It's part of a larger project several of us are cooking up regarding an online community to serve the physical community under construction there. (Watch this space!)
If you've ever daydreamed about life at Mueller,
or just want to keep track of what's going on over there, she would like to
hear from you. Please contact me at "firstname.lastname@example.org" and I'll
put you in touch. Thanks!
Catellus, developer of the Mueller Airport Redevelopment Project, has announced how it plans to allocate the first 340 homes to eager homebuyers. Dubbed the "Mueller Pioneer Program", the plan calls for applicants to register between March 5 and April 30 in order to be included in a drawing that will determine their place in line.
In a wrinkle of benefit to poker players and game theorists, prospective buyers must select their preferred builder and "home type" at the time of registration. As I read it, this will amount to a separate priority list for each builder and home type, so pick an unpopular model and you stand a better chance of being near the head of the line. The application process also requires a credit pre-qualification, for which there is a $50 fee.
The list of builders is to be announced on March 5. I'm unclear on whether the specific "home types" are those spelled out in the Mueller plan [PDF] or something even more specific. The initial phase is to include yard houses, row houses, and garden court houses, so that's probably enough "home types".
More to the point, we don't know a lot yet about prices. Presumably this will all be much clearer on March 5th. It sounds like Catellus plans to have Mueller Central up and running by then, too. I know where I'll be that Monday!
M1ek Dahmus and Michael Schliefke both recently posted aerial views of downtown with some changes penciled in.
M1ek's post was one of his patented screeds on Austin transportation issues, in this case the rail we're going to get, the rail we might get, and the rail that got away. In the illo, the green is the 2000 light rail plan rejected by voters; the teeny bit of yellow in the corner is the 2004 commuter rail plan (not light rail!) approved by voters; and the red is the hypothetical streetcar to Mueller. M1ek's point, which bears repeating, is that the commuter rail doesn't go where people need to go, whereas the slightly better-situated streetcar has no dedicated right of way and so will be slooooow. (Be sure to click through both to his blog post and the full-sized image.)
Michael Schliefke, meanwhile, is the first person I've noticed who bothered to paste the various high-rise plans currently in the pipeline into a combined view of Austin's future skyline. (Note whose PhotoShop has the better production values; four years of art school paid off!) God's nose-hair trimmer, AKA the Frost Bank Tower, is about to be lost in the crowd. Michael wonders whether anyone's really thinking about the impact of suddenly having 25,000 über-rich people living in downtown Austin and no effective mass transit, although he does note that all those bare walls might represent an opportunity for artists like him.
I'd add that I don't know where those 25,000 childless, lawn-hating, downtown-employed (if employed at all) rich folks are going to come from. I recently got my ears boxed on the Austin Urbanists mailing list for suggesting that, even if all condo projects in sight are pre-selling units faster than they can print contracts, there might be some limit to Austin's supply of rich people.
For the record, I consider myself an "urbanist" too. I wish, for example, that Austin's neighborhood associations would stop playing NIMBY and start figuring out how to plan for central Austin neighborhoods that will be liveable when, not if, Austin's population doubles again. I agree with Cap Metro's critics that the rail plan they hoodwinked us into approving in 2004 is a suburban plan, not an urban plan.
But I do think there's more than a whiff of "let them eat cake" in the air when M1ek says, "the 'bubble' concerns me not in the least - in fact, the more properties that get built, the better; for those future residents after the bubble pops, that is." It's a nice fantasy that the rich will build Altavida and the Austonian, default on their mortgages when the bubble pops, and then let the middle class move in for pennies on the dollar. I just hope somebody keeps the elevators running. Meanwhile, I wish that a little of the civic excitement going into ultra-high, ultra-hip, ultra-dense housing for the ultra-rich would be channeled into some semi-high, semi-hip, semi-dense housing for the semi-scraping by.
I see that a hoary old conspiracy theory that I recall first hearing during the Reagan administration continues to circulate. A widely reproduced list of alleged FEMA internment camps includes Mueller hangars as one of its sites:
There over 800 prison camps in the United States, all fully operational and ready to receive prisoners. They are all staffed and even surrounded by full-time guards, but they are all empty. These camps are to be operated by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) should Martial Law need to be implemented in the United States...
[Rundown of legislation and executive orders alleged to create this program, plus a list of facilities in all 50 states.]
Austin - Robert Mueller Municipal airport has detention areas inside hangars.
Bastrop - Prison and military vehicle motor pool.
Ft. Hood (Killeen) - Newly built concentration camp, with towers, barbed wire etc., just like the one featured in the movie Amerika. Mock city for NWO shock- force training. Some footage of this area was used in "Waco: A New Revelation"
[And seven other facilities in Texas]
In the era of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo and even more secretive overseas prisons, I'd be prepared to believe almost anything, but it's time for the conspiracy theorists to update their lists. For example, here in Austin the old Mueller airport was shut down in 1999 and is in the process of being redeveloped as a neighborhood. There's no longer anyplace to hide at Mueller, if there ever really was. It's clear that if there were large-scale prison facilities in the old hangars, then current hangar occupants Austin Film Studios, the Yellow Bike Project and the Lonestar Rollergirls would have sniffed them out by now.
And yet... there is one little-known facility tucked into a corner of Mueller where a conspiracy could still hang its hat. It is the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center, a joint effort of the City of Austin and Travis County. It has to do with law enforcement and has "emergency" in its name! What more evidence does one need? :-) The CTECC is at the northeast corner of Mueller, at the bottom of this pretty shot superimposing the neighborhood plan on an aerial view of Austin:
I'd love to know the ultimate origin of the Mueller concentration camp legend. I think I first heard it from John Stockwell around '84 or so. Might FEMA have once drawn up a list of potential emergency detention facilities that did include Mueller?
Austin city demographer Ryan Robinson pointed out a neat trick I'm surprised I'd never heard of before.
When you're trying to orient yourself on an Austin map that lacks some of the usual landmarks, look for the "dog's head" formed by the Colorado River east of town (here highlighted in yellow).
It's one of those things that, once you've seen it, you can't help but seeing. For instance, look for it here and here.
Yahoo Maps has added satellite imagery much like Google Maps, and it's recent enough to show the reconstruction in progress on the old Mueller airport site. You can see the Dell Children's Hospital and the hole in the ground that will be the lake (click through for notes).
By comparison, the Google Maps imagery predates reconstruction.
Of course, either one could be updated by the time you read this. Here are the latest Yahoo and Google versions of these shots.
In 2004, John Cook won the City of Austin's GIS Day prize with this map of Austin Weirdness.
You can see a larger version on Flickr or download the full-sized PDF.
His weirdness metric was based on addresses from the Chronicle's Best of Austin and (if I remember correctly) the Austin Independent Business Alliance. Note that he included both a heat map and a rating by zip code. I think no one will be surprised that 78704 leads the zip codes!
Thanks to John for letting me post this. There's another Austin GIS Day coming up this Wednesday, November 8.
The Austin Chronicle is running a funny Am I McMansion or Not? contest in which readers can submit photos of houses and rate them, hot-or-not style, as to whether they are McMansions.
The surprising thing is that, while there are quite a few mansions in the contest, almost none of them live up to the "Mc" part. A McMansion isn't just a big house, it's a big, ugly, mass-produced house with a 2+ car garage on the front and bling by Wal-Mart -- the house you get when you holler "Supersize me!" at a tract builder's drive-thru window.
Many of the houses being rated at the Chron are old, unique, multi-family, and/or architect-designed. Some are beautiful. And a few look like the kind of dense yet well-designed infill house that Austin most needs right now, quite the opposite of a big-box big box. But the voters are giving better scores to the true McMansions than to most of the ones with nothing "Mc" about them.
The comments in the gallery are interesting if contentious. Some commenters claim that the worst houses wouldn't actually be blocked by Austin's proposed McMansion rules while some of the better ones would be.
To get an idea of the scale of SXSW Interactive in this year of Bubble 2.0, one need only consider the goody bags.
Meanwhile the hipster tourons are savoring the local irony.
The nifty map of Austin wifi hotspots prompts me to ask:
Where's the closest wifi hotspot to Fry's (MoPac at Parmer)? I'd like to find a place where I can duck out and do a little research while shopping.
As a possible answer to my own question, the Milwood branch of the Austin Public Library is about half a mile away at 12500 Amherst Drive.
(Thx to Patrick Ramsey for the map and TT at Austin Metroblogging for the pointer.)
A quick reminder, bloggage to come:
The monthly Austin Bloggers get-together is tonight at 7:00 at Flightpath.
And the marvelous East Austin Studio Tour is this Saturday and Sunday. It's free and it's the best way to keep up with local artists and to explore Austin's changing East side.