Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Mueller Development: An Examination of Gentrification and Disneyfication in East Austin by Garrett Rogerson

            The Mueller New Urbanism Development is one of the hottest new areas in Austin. Located in East Austin on the site of the old Mueller Airport, the development has been hailed as a shining example of progress for turning a vacant, decrepit site into a modern, progressive community. However, the redevelopment of this site is, like many things in urban affairs, a double-edged sword. Mueller is envisioned and marketed as a diverse, livable community where residents can live, work, and play all in one place. However, in my observations, I have found that the ideal vision of Mueller is more the exception than the rule. Instead, Mueller has developed into a community of predominantly wealthy, white residents in a traditionally minority controlled space who have - intentionally or not - settled down in their own protected enclave and served as trailblazers for the gentrification of the surrounding East Austin neighborhoods.

            Before discussing the positive and negative aspects of the development and its effects on its surroundings, it is first necessary to give some background information and a brief history of the site. Mueller is constructed on the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, which was Austin's primary airport until it was replaced by Bergstrom International Airport in 1999. The site remained vacant for years, and in 2004 the Austin City Council reached an agreement with real estate giant Catellus for the development of the site (Catellus website). Ground broke on the development in 2007, and though construction is still very much ongoing, the development has started to take shape. Mueller is designed to be a prototypical example of New Urbanism, which according to Catellus is meant to eliminate traffic and sprawl through walkability and livability, be on the forefront of sustainability, foster a sense of community & diversity, and “closely resemble the small town of pre-war America” (Catellus website). The development contains apartment complexes, retail stores, restaurants, and offices in rather close proximity to one another, sometimes in the same structures, as well as an area of single-family housing. As we will discuss, the utopian ideal has not completely translated into reality.

            Though not quite to the extreme level embodied by Celebration, FL (lecture), Mueller is a textbook example of the phenomenon known as Disneyfication. The community is a utopia, with the unwritten caveat that one must meet a certain, rather mid to high-income threshold in order to enjoy its benefits. The large, pristine houses in the development sit on tree-lined streets and have well maintained front gardens (the typical lawn has been eliminated under the tenants of New Urbanism). The single family housing development in Mueller also enjoys access to multiple parks, a community swimming pool, and the many acres of green space that has been built into the Mueller development. Also, while considering it “walkable” might be a stretch, the local HEB, retail establishments and planned "town center" (which is to contain restaurants, a cinema, and a hotel) are certainly close by. These houses, aside from being designed in a different architectural manner, are hardly different from houses in the prototypical American bedroom community, allowing its residents to stay within their bubble of fantasy and completely isolate themselves from most of the world. On a larger scale, the entire development is isolated at least to some extent. Though one of Catellus' "Principles of New Urbanism" is ease of access to transit (Catellus website), bus service is sporadic, and there is no rail. The western end of the development does border IH-35 and Airport Boulevard, but is constructed so that there is a barrier - either in the form of the backs of large retail buildings or through green space - between the development and the rest of the city. All things considered, Mueller is a great example of Disneyfication thanks to the emasculate nature, exclusivity, and self containment of its space.

            Through my observations, Mueller also seems to be contributing substantially to gentrification. Though few, if any people have been displaced by the physical construction of the site, that doesn't mean Mueller doesn't have a gentrifying effect. The development has raised property values in the surrounding areas, forcing some residents to leave their homes because they could not afford rising property taxes. Sadly, many of these homeowners were ones who had already invested enough time and money into their property to have it completely paid off. This is a theme throughout the city of Austin which Mueller has unfortunately been a part of (Scott, KXAN). Also, another tenant of New Urbanism is diversity in housing options and community makeup (Catellus website). This is the single biggest point of contention I have with the Catellus plan. The developer promises that at least 25% of housing in the Mueller development will be affordable to those making 80% or less, and in some cases 60% or less of Austin's median family income (Catellus website). Additionally, there is currently a lottery system to get into any houses that are deemed “affordable.” After multiple visits to the area and examination of census data, it is clear that this is not even close to reality. The most recent census figures show the area being overwhelmingly white (US Census Bureau), and my personal observations confirm that the residents are not only white, but also mostly affluent, which can be ascertained through data like rent and home prices (Catellus website) and also the types of cars lining the street. As the development continues to grow, it seems that it is headed in a direction of being a major spearhead in the incursion of well off whites into traditional low and middle income minority spaces in East Austin.

            Does Mueller live up to its promise as a model of New Urbanism? Undoubtedly, there are some tenants of New Urbanism that Mueller has fully embodied. It is argued by the New Urbanists that all of the development has used the most modern, sustainable construction techniques, and there are acres upon acres of green space that give the area high marks in terms of environmental friendliness. Catellus touts the "Adaptive reuse of the former airport site," and it is true that there is much economic good to be had by transforming Mueller from a run down, vacant airport to an economic hub, almost a mini edge city. However, some of the vision of what Mueller would look like has been compromised, or even ignored. The development was supposed to be an employment hub, where residents could live just a short walk from work. There are many jobs, some of them middle and upper income even (Dell Children's Hospital, UT Pediatric Research, etc.), but the vast majority of employment in Mueller is low end service industries, paying nowhere near enough to live in the development. Also, the scale of the development means that it may be difficult for those few residents that do both live and work there to actually walk to work. As mentioned before, whether intentional or not, the mission of having a diverse community has fallen flat on its face. Mueller is predominantly white and overwhelmingly affluent, and that doesn't look to change any time soon.

This account is not meant to be a value judgment on the Mueller development. As I have outlined, the transformation of a vacant airport into the Mueller of today has significant benefits to the economy of the city, but ignore the negative externalities it has had on nearby residents or to hold it up as a model to be replicated in the future is foolish. Mueller should be looked back on in the future; not to be emulated, but because it is clear that Mueller has become a textbook example of both gentrification and Disneyfication. Neither one of these is inherently good or bad - or at least we haven't judged them as such as a society at large - but it is clear that they are unintended consequences. Continuing to follow the growth and progress of the Mueller development, both for what is right and what is wrong, is a worthwhile endeavor for planners, geographers, and anyone with even a casual interest in creating an economically and socially robust city in the future.

1.)   Class Lectures
2.)   Mueller Development Website (Run by Developer Catellus).
3.)   US Census Beuaru. 2010 Census Interactive Population Map. http://
4.)   “Higher Cost of Living Squeezing Many Out of Their Homes”. David Scott. 28 June 2013. KXAN News – Austin.