A mixed-use project by national real estate firm Ryan Companies bound for the heart of the Mueller community of Central Austin will add 350 residences and 2,500 square feet of ground-level retail space to the city’s favorite 711-acre former-airport-turned-neighborhood — and today’s announcement of the development also brings us one step closer to learning the future of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport’s swinging midcentury control tower, opened along with its now-demolished terminal in 1961 by legendary local architecture duo Arthur Fehr & Charles Granger and still standing as one of the few reminders left of this new neighborhood’s past life.
The as-yet-unnamed development, bound for the large and conspicuously vacant lot surrounding the fenced-off control tower, contains two residential buildings ranging from three to five floors in height, divided by a public paseo — that’s a term often used to describe outdoor pedestrian walkways, recently appearing in several large projects around here — which includes a new plaza space of some kind near the tower end of the tract, though details on that last element are pretty scarce at the moment.
The tower is located on the western edge of the property facing major thoroughfare Berkman Drive, with Sorin, Vaughan, and McCurdy Streets surrounding its other three sides — and according to the developers, the new buildings will be set back from Berkman Drive to allow for better views of the tower, since it’s a huge source of architectural character for the district. At the very top of the above aerial photo, just opposite the empty tower’s lot, you’ll find John Gaines Park, the neighborhood’s largest public park opened back in 2016 and named in memory of the City of Austin’s first Black police officer, who was tragically murdered in the line of duty by a fellow deputy constable in 1913. The project’s paseo section will connect the park to the plaza on the tower side of the site, as seen in the western-facing perspective below:
The new residential project is designed in-house by the architecture and engineering arm of Ryan Companies, but you might notice some of these renderings have a familiar flavor — that’s courtesy of the much-loved locals at Lake Flato, serving as design consultants on these structures along with a whole laundry list of other folks:
Ryan has also partnered with Lake|Flato, GarzaEMC, Integrity Structural, Aptus Engineering, LandDesign, Inc. and Ink+Oro as additional design consultants. The project will feature a variety of green building elements in the pursuit of LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and an Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) rating.
— Ryan Companies, April 29, 2021
This addition to the neighborhood is expected to break ground by Q4 2021, and will preserve 15 percent of its 350 units for Mueller’s Affordable Homes Program, meaning more than 50 residences at this community will be available to households earning up to 60 percent of the Austin metro’s median family income — which pencils out to a bit less than $47,000 a year for a two-person household. (We give the City of Austin props for the whole public-private partnership thing that made this happen, even though we’d still prefer for Mueller to have more tall buildings)
Today’s announcement very carefully only discusses major details of the building that will soon occupy the space around the tower, which we’ve known was going to happen for quite some time at least in the abstract thanks to the incredibly detailed neighborhood plan from Mueller’s master development firm Catellus. Info about the project’s outdoor plaza, which will seemingly surround the tower at Berkman Drive, is harder to come by — to its credit, Catellus says it plans to host a neighborhood information session in the coming weeks with more on this new public amenity.
Nice as it may be, even an outdoor plaza doesn’t get us much closer to knowing what’s happening with the old tower itself, an open question driving many of our best adaptive reuse fantasies (Cocktail lounge! Event space! An Airbnb we couldn’t afford!) for more than a decade now. Back in 2019, the official line from Mueller’s developers was that the hope is to someday make this structure accessible to the public, but retrofitting what’s currently sort of a deathtrap for modern innovations like the ADA and municipal fire codes inside a very small footprint would take some effort.
According to a Catellus representative, there is no update regarding the future of the control tower at this time, and the surrounding development won’t be physically connected to it — plus, Ryan Companies won’t be redeveloping the tower, since that’s probably Catellus’ baby. Still, nearly two years after finally getting a look inside ourselves, we’re interested in any project offering visitors and residents a chance to get past the fence and see this thing up close, even it it’s just from the outside.
If nothing else, the prominence of this modernist masterpiece at the heart of the new project could eventually motivate the public to demand its adaptation into something we could enjoy inside as well, but we won’t know any updates on that until we harass the appropriate parties at this upcoming neighborhood meeting. Stay tuned!