Mueller Set for Quantum Leap in Growth This Year

With its remake into a master-planned New Urbanist development about one-third complete, the Mueller community northeast of downtown is poised to take a quantum leap in its growth this year.

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Mueller Set for Quantum Leap in Growth This Year

With its remake into a master-planned New Urbanist development about one-third complete, the Mueller community northeast of downtown is poised to take a quantum leap in its growth this year.

Projects totaling about $250 million are set to break ground in 2012, said Greg Weaver,  who has overseen redevelopment since before construction started in 2005 on the 700-acre site that once was home to Austin's municipal airport.

The new development will include Mueller's first grocery store and hotel, along with more housing, a new hospital wing and facilities for a nonprofit theater and a performing arts center.

Taken together, the projects mean 2012 will be pivotal for Mueller, the largest  public-private venture in Austin's history.

For Weaver, the progress is "a great testament to the economy and what's going on in Austin."

"I think Central Texas is doing far better than almost anywhere in the country," said Weaver, executive vice president of Catellus Development Corp., which the city tapped in 2002 for Mueller's ambitious transformation. "There's a lot of pent-up demand."

'So much happening'

The plan for Mueller's redevelopment has evolved over about 20 years, even before the former airport saw its last flight take off in 1999.

The project's continued growth isn't important just to the people who live there. When completed in the next four to six years,  the city estimates that Mueller will add $1.1 billion  in taxable property value to its coffers. The new projects are key steps in bringing that to fruition.

"There's so much happening at Mueller right now," Weaver said. "In the coming months, you'll be able to drive by a number of areas of the community, feel the energy and see the momentum that's taking shape."

One of the key additions will be a 75,000-square-foot H-E-B grocery store, which is expected to be a centerpiece of Mueller's highly anticipated  Market District.

Also this spring, construction is due to start on a Residence Inn by Marriott with 112 rooms, as well as a second phase of apartments — 301 units — being developed by Simmons Vedder Co.

By summer or early fall, the Austin school district intends to break ground on its long-awaited performing arts center, with a targeted opening in August 2013.

And the Austin Playhouse, a professional theater now in temporary quarters at Mueller, hopes to start construction on a $4 million, 18,000-square-foot facility in March, pending city approval of a site plan, said Don Toner, the producing artistic director of Austin Playhouse.

Atop the theater, a national nonprofit plans to start construction in two years on affordable live-work units for actors, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors and other artists — a $12 million project in all, Toner said.

Austin Playhouse is targeting an opening this fall for the theater and a restaurant it will include.

Next to the Austin Playhouse, the Austin Children's Museum plans to relocate from its downtown digs into a new facility at Mueller, although museum officials say no timetable has been set for breaking ground.

Elsewhere, construction is under way on a  $48 million expansion of the existing Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas that will add a wing with 75 beds.

In the Market District, H-E-B will anchor a shopping center of 115,000 square feet that will have local, regional and national retailers and eateries. The H-E-B is due to open in the summer of 2013. The extended-stay hotel is targeting a spring 2013 opening.

The hotel, being developed by Benchmark Development Corp., will have 3,000 feet of ground-floor retail space facing 51st Street and Lancaster Drive, helping to energize that part of the development, Catellus officials say.

Construction also has started on roads and utilities for a new section of 221 homes. And Pecan Street Inc., the 3-year-old clean energy consortium, just broke ground on a $1.5 research laboratory.

Billed as the nation's first smart grid technology commercialization lab, and due to open late this summer, the lab will host researchers who will develop the standards and technology at the heart of next-generation consumer electronics and energy management, said Colin Rowan, a spokesman for Pecan Street.

Pecan Street already is implementing a consumer-focused home energy research study with more than 200 homes in and near the Mueller community.

Despite all the new development, Mueller's transformation is only about one-third complete, with 1.8 million square feet of space built or coming this year of the 4.4 million planned.

By the time it is completed in 2016 or 2018,  Mueller is projected to have 5,700 homes and apartments; 13,000 employees; and 140 acres of parks and green space, half of which is already done. About 3,300 people work at Mueller currently.

The new section of  homes will be bordered by Philomena and Mattie streets and Simond Avenue along Berkman Drive. The houses will start rising this summer, built by David Weekley Homes, Standard Pacific Homes, Streetman Homes and Canada-based Homes by Avi. The first residents are expected to move in late this year.

"We still have a lot to go out there," Weaver said. "And we're just getting started."

The additional and projected tax revenue is only part of the benefit the city will reap from Mueller.

The city and Catellus outlined six overarching social and community goals, including creating a sustainable, diverse development that would create jobs, be compatible with surrounding neighborhoods, help revitalize East Austin and offer housing within reach of moderate and lower-income residents.

Those goals resonate with Mueller residents like Terri Schexnayder,  who lives in the newly opened Wildflower Terrace apartment complex. Schexnayder, 60, who owns a business that provides marketing and writing services, said she chose to move to Mueller after getting a divorce and selling her home in South Austin, which she said had been broken into twice in one year.

"I had decided I wanted a life of no maintenance and, quite frankly, to feel safe about where I lived," said Schexnayder, owner of Communications for the Social Good. "The Mueller area provided that for me."

Schexnayder said she likes that Mueller is "a community full of diversity and a real sense of togetherness."

Bouncing back

Mueller's current momentum is a welcome burst of activity after a rough patch ushered in by the economic downturn.

"Like every project here and across the country, Mueller was not immune to the recent downturn," Weaver said. But, he said, "together with the city, we were mindful of crafting a master development agreement that accounts for slower periods of activity and allows us to make smart, rational decisions to address the longer-term picture of the project, rather than taking the immediate, short-sided view."

What also helps, Weaver said, is having a solid foundation for the project.

"When you have a good location, a well-thought-out plan, active community engagement, happy property owners and smart people who are thinking about the long-term investment, odds are the project is going to remain successful."

"That said, while activity certainly slowed during the downturn at Mueller, it never stopped," Weaver said. "Between 2009 and today, we were involved with a variety of commercial, retail and residential projects. This period also gave us an opportunity to take a breather and plan for all of the elements that are making 2012 such a busy year out here."

To date, about $109.9 million  in infrastructure has been built at Mueller. The development currently includes more than 390,000 square feet of retail shops fronting on Interstate 35 and bordered by 51st Street, with stores including Home Depot, Petsmart, Best Buy, Marshalls and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

In the past few years, the project has generated nearly $6 million in sales and property taxes.

All the revenue so far has gone back into funds used to repay bonds for an estimated $184 million in infrastructure costs Catellus has borne and will continue to front as the project gets built over time.

For city leaders, Mueller is "the largest and one of our more successful (public-private) developments," Sue Edwards, an assistant city manager, said at a recent meeting of the Urban Land Institute's Austin chapter. "The project looks just like the project we talked about."

Via Austin American Statesman.

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