Building a Community with Bits and Backhoes

Mueller Progress, July 2007

As you read this, heavy construction crews are hard at work grading roads, laying infrastructure, and preparing to build homes and offices in Austin, Texas’s newest neighborhood.

Mueller SiteLocated on the former site of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (which closed in 1999), the 711 acre Mueller redevelopment project will be larger in size than either downtown Austin, or the University of Texas campus. (A comparison is to the right) When the project is complete the neighborhood will house 10,000 residents, 10,000 jobs, over 1,000 units of affordable housing. The site will contain a town center, grocery store, school, parks, the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, and the Austin Studios filmmaking complex. The company developing the site, Catellus Development Group, announced the first group of home owners this summer.

The neighborhood’s design follows New Urbanist principles, although I was not able to find illustrations of the specific buildings planned and an early shopping center has been criticized for being a conventional strip mall. This site plan provides the general outline of the project:

Mueller Plan

I’ve written previously about how in communities across the country, a “complex civic infrastructure of local blogs, email lists, and discussion forums has formed.” Mueller may be one of the first projects where this citizen-generated infrastructure emerges before even the first house is occupied.

Mueller SketchAlthough the neighborhood’s design has been the subject of exhaustive citizen planning over at least a ten year period, longtime Austin resident Prentiss Riddle thought the neighborhood needed a participatory community website to complement the formal, corporate site set up by Catellus. With a background including a 13-year stint as Rice University’s webmaster and degrees in computer science and information architecture, Riddle is no stranger to online systems. After months of tinkering, the website he calls “Mueller Fever” is online with forums, interactive maps, and an automated news aggregating section.

I corresponded with Prentiss recently about both the project and the website.

ROB GOODSPEED: Was this project started for your masters program, or is it a personal project? How many people are helping or have expressed interest?

PRENTISS RIDDLE: It’s a personal project that I’ve been thinking about for some time and which I managed to turn into a series of class projects for my masters program.

In a Tom Sawyer move, I persuaded two classmate in the spring to join me in a more theoretical group project for which we wrote a paper and built a clickable prototype that didn’t have any real user content behind it. One of my teammates, Kijana Knight, also did an ethnographic study of potential Mueller homebuyers to find out about their information needs.

Mueller Progress, June 2007For another class I wrote some more short papers on Mueller-related topics. The most interesting of those was the design of an idea I’ve called “mVite”: a viral marketing scheme for attracting small businesses to locate at Mueller, in which Mueller residents and neighbors would compete to get their favorite local shops, services and restaurants onto a “top ten” scoreboard by the number of invitations received. I haven’t implemented it, in part because I haven’t thought of a good way to send the invitations to the businesses without their being
perceived as spam. The paper is online here.

Then as the final project for my degree I implemented several of the ideas from my papers into what I hope is a production-quality system (or will be once I get some performance issues solved).

Throughout the process I talked to friends who were interested in Mueller and everyone expressed frustration at the lack of information about the development and encouragement at the idea of a website to address that lack. The name “Mueller Fever” was an inside joke about the land rush when the lottery for initial homebuyers was announced; I don’t know how apt it will seem once people are actually living there.

RG: How did you get interested in the Mueller project? Are you going to move there? Do you know other people planning to move?

PR: I’ve been in Austin off and on for over 25 years and remember when the idea of moving the airport and reusing the land first began to circulate. At that time Mueller was largely perceived as a noise issue for the surrounding neighborhoods; its potential economic and quality-of-life value to the city became central only as Austin’s boom in the 90’s drove up congestion and housing costs.

Mueller Progress, July 2007I was excited from the beginning with the vision of a new walkable, affordable and environmentally sustainable neighborhood in central Austin. I’d love to live in the Mueller that we were promised for all those years. Unfortunately, there’s a lot about Mueller as it’s actually being built which is troubling, including HOA rules modeled on those of suburban gated communities, commercial development which doesn’t differ much from the usual
strip malls, and the neglect of the project by our transit authority. (Some observers have referred to Mueller as “transit-oriented development without transit.”) But by far the biggest issue is cost: except for the units designated as “affordable,” houses at Mueller are way out of reach for most of the people I know who were most passionate about the vision in the first place.

That said, I do have friends who have bought at Mueller and are waiting for their house to be built, and there are a lot of use who remain hopeful that future phases will come a little closer to fulfilling the promise.

RG: In 5 years, what do you hope Mueller will look like? What about Mueller Fever?

PR: I hope it looks like a real neighborhood and not like a housing development. I hope that the forces of conformity are vanquished and the famous “Keep Austin Weird” aesthetic is allowed to flourish. In local terms, that means I hope it is more like South Austin or Hyde Park and less like Circle C or Round Rock. I hope that somebody paints polka dots on their house.

I hope that people are actually walking to shop and work. I hope that the new urbanist idea of a greater emphasis on shared public space really does result in more social interaction among neighbors. I hope that the live/work and shop houses are a hit and influence Vertical Mixed Use construction all over the city. And I hope that Mueller is seen as a model which can be copied out on the still-sprawling edges of Austin.

As for Mueller Fever, I hope that it’s a place to find a lost dog or a pick-up softball game as well as to have a voice in neighborhood or city politics. I do believe that online and face-to-face communities rooted in a place can strengthen one another; I hope people use it to make connections that would have eluded them otherwise.

> Mueller Fever [Prentiss Riddle site]
> Mueller, Austin Redevelopment [Catellus Company Website]
> City of Austin Mueller Master Development Agreement and Design Guidelines

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Rob, thanks for the attention to the project and for giving me a chance to air my opinions.

    I see that another online community for Mueller has just launched:

    I’m going to try to track down the people behind the Mueller Community site and see whether they’re interested in collaborating. Meanwhile, I’d be interested in what you and your readers think about these two approaches, or other models of online community sites for neighborhoos that we should be looking at.

  2. Great interview, Rob, thanks for doing this.

    My experience with neighborhood-scale (or even block-scale) mailing lists has been good, but with the occasional caveat that online interactions can be divisive as well as unifying for neighborhoods. No amount of typing replaces the block party (though the typing can make planning the block party easier).

  3. Pingback: Brian Kerr | links for 2007-08-31

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