'Dream City' or Neighborhood Threat?
A proposed church development has some residents losing sleep
Ever since a news story broke four years ago about a local pastor's vision for a peaceful 53-acre tract in Southwest Austin, the collective antenna of Oak Hill neighborhoods has been on full alert as plans have steadily taken shape for "Dream City" – the future campus of PromiseLand West Church.
In January, engineers for the enterprising development filed a site plan application with the city, seeking administrative approval for the project that will feature multiple buildings, a hike-and-bike trail, and a ball field. The church property, surrounded by three quiet subdivisions tucked off of Highway 71 West, can be easily seen from the roadway. Driving northwest of the busy "Y" intersection in Oak Hill, past a smattering of prominently displayed City Council campaign signs for Randi Shade, a large neon-green "Coming Soon" sign beckons from the roadside. "Dream City," the sign reads. "A Place Where Dreamers Gather."
Many nearby residents hope to quash, or minimize, the centerpiece of the promised dream: a 28,000-square-foot amphitheatre with seating for 2,500 people. Neighborhood leaders from three surrounding subdivisions – Hill Country Estates, Covered Bridge, and Westview Estates – question the amphitheatre's "religious assembly use" under the city ordinance, as well as the structure's impact on light and sound in a largely rural setting. And, like most other stakeholders involved in planning issues in Southwest Austin, the residents are concerned about the additional traffic load on Highway 71, an increasingly crowded and dangerous roadway leading to the Hill Country.
Pastor Randy Phillips, whose PromiseLand West currently holds worship services at Westlake High School, says he understands the concerns of residents and plans to continue working with neighborhood groups to try to achieve common ground. But Phillips' optimistic mindset has him already envisioning Dream City's finished product. "The community will love it," he says with the ready confidence of a true believer.
Phillips envisions building on the success of the original PromiseLand Church on East 51st Street, which was founded by his father, Kenneth Phillips. The church has deep roots in its Northeast Austin neighborhood, where it serves as a meeting spot for area organizations; the church hosted public meetings during the early planning stages of the redevelopment of the Mueller neighborhood, for example, and it was heavily featured in Friday Night Lights. Like his father, the younger Phillips also has strong ties to the Austin community, which includes his role in a contemporary Christian music group Phillips, Craig & Dean.
Phillips is troubled that his Dream City project is causing angst among neighbors, but he's not backing down from his plan. "I know there's people who have moved out there expecting it to be a sleepy little place," he said. "I can see why they might be alarmed, but we're going to work hand in hand with the neighborhoods. We're not there to impose our will on others."
That the PromiseLand West site is located just inside the city limits, within the Barton Springs Zone, represents a small blessing for neighbors. Churches are generally allowed to locate in most any of the city's residential and commercial zoning districts, and most church developments typically need little more than administrative approvals from the city – fairly automatic if the proposed development is going to be used for religious assembly. But judging from the reams of documents on file with the city, this project does not appear to be an open-and-shut case as it undergoes a thorough vetting.
One sticking point for staffer Sarah Graham, the case manager for the project, is the amphitheatre. In a round of written exchanges between staff and the engineering firm of Hanrahan Pritchard Engineering Inc., Graham questioned the specific use of the outdoor venue and noted the possibility of the venue falling into a category of "outdoor entertainment," which is not allowed in rural residential zoning. Graham said it's possible that the site plan application may ultimately require a trip to the Planning Commission for further review. In a larger scheme, the development – chiefly the amphitheatre – does not appear to align with the development and environmental goals of the Oak Hill Combined Neighborhood Plan, so that, too, could come into play as the proposal wends its way through the city process.
Charlsa Bentley and D. Armentrout, who own homes in nearby Hill Country Estates, say they and other residents met with Phillips on several occasions in 2007 and 2008, but the two sides, though cordial in their disagreements, were never able to break the impasse over the amphitheatre. One of the more alarming pieces of information to come out of the meetings, they said, was Phillips' statement about the number of events the amphitheatre would host each month – eight. "That means we'll never have peace and quiet on weekends," Armentrout said. "We've had very good relations with churches moving into our community," she added, "but I don't think any of them would ever dream of blasting sound at their neighbors."
"It's not going to be a Backyard," Phillips said, referring to the established outdoor music venue. The Dream City amphitheatre, he explained, will serve as an integral part of the community, providing a place for graduation ceremonies, recitals, ballets, family movie nights, jazz concerts, and other events. The church's intent is to build a nondisruptive state-of-the-art facility, he said. "We are designing our amplification systems and natural berming to enclose sound." Moreover, he said, "We will make our calendar of events known to the neighborhood representatives and encourage their input in events they would like for us to provide."
Which leads back to the question of whether "religious assembly use" would accurately apply to the proposed amphitheatre, suggesting that Dream City has some miles left in its journey to becoming PromiseLand West.