Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Price Of Progress: The Lost Opportunity To Preserve An Entire Commercial Airport

Commercial airliners, on their final maneuvers before landing in Austin, Texas, more often than not fly over or near a large airport control tower in the city. But these day, the airliners pass right by the old tower, just like time itself did many years ago.

The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, named after an Austin city councilman, helped usher Austin into the commercial aviation age when it was first opened in 1930’s. Despite several attempts to modernize the airport through the years, one thing which could not be changed was its location. As time went on, the airport soon found itself surrounded by a growing and vibrant city. The airport, with its congestion, noise, and lack of room to expand eventually meant its days were numbered.

As ideas and proposals were put forth to build a new airport, the U.S. Government decided to close Bergstrom Air Force Base, which was conveniently located on the southeast edge of the city. The base was originally built as an army air field during World War II, and later became Bergstrom Air Force Base in the late 1940’s. Over the years, Bergstrom accommodated both strategic long-range bombers and tactical fighters for the U.S. Air Force, and the long runways and somewhat rural location were perfect for adapting itself into a commercial repurposing. With the closure of the military air base in 1993, the City of Austin, which actually owned the land on which Bergstrom Air Force Base sat and had reversion rights if the military ever left, was suddenly given an unexpected “gift” to solve its Mueller Airport problem.

It was 1999, before Bergstrom Air Force Base was finally converted into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. As the new commercial airport opened, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport was closed forever. And, with the closure, nearly 70 years of commercial aviation history in Austin disappeared.

For many years after Mueller Municipal Airport was closed, it sat silent and empty like some old Texas “ghost town.” Its buildings, signs, and runways sat intact, seemingly suspended in time. Eventually, a Planned Unit Development, under the name of Mueller, was approved, with construction beginning in earnest in 2007. It is a well thought out project, which will no doubt be very successful when completed, comprising of homes, shopping, parks, and a medical center.

Today, the new homes abutting the main body of the old airport are very nice, but at least at this stage, in my opinion, seem to replicate a suburbia found in a thousand other cities across the country. To the north of the new homes, looms the main body of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Along with the old airport control tower, no longer in control of commercial airline traffic flying into Austin, are a few remaining artifacts of the past.

Americans always tend to look forward, not back. This is a good thing generally, and has propelled our country’s success over the last couple of hundred years. But, I wonder what the future importance and historical significance might have been to future generations if Austin had preserved the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, intact, as a museum along with music venues and shops. While Austin, as a city, prides itself as being different, I think it missed a great opportunity with respect to Mueller. While Austin citizens often decry and protest the destruction of a single pecan tree in the city, or the potential loss of a small music cafe on the University of Texas campus, it missed a chance to save something which was much more difficult to preserve, an entire commercial airport, representing nearly a three-quarters of a century of American history.

Money and development, it seems, nearly always trumps historical preservation. Sadly, this is the price of "progress."

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