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Mueller marts, both mega and mini

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:

  1. At least a sliver of the Southern Gateway should be designated as live/work and brought online as soon as possible in Phase 2 of Mueller. I hear a lot of interest in live/work property but so far it sounds like that's all scheduled for years out; I think there should be a small trial of live/work ASAP, just as there's a small trial of Garden Court houses in Phase 1. One live/work unit should be reserved for use as a neighborhood bodega as soon as the apartments at the Southern Gateway are built. Unless the live/work units are prohibitively expensive, it should be easy enough to rent it month-to-month to tech startups until then, and sell it again if the bodega fails to catch on.
  2. The public needs to be invited to participate in recruiting small local business to Mueller. Right now the Catellus site has sections for regional retail and big commercial developers, but I don't see a place for individuals to be matchmakers in the process. I want to send "Wish You Were Here" cards to all my favorite local shops and restaurants and tell them exactly who to call to find a place in the Town Center, Market District and (let us hope) Southern Gateway.

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.

austin 2007.03.23 link