A Church and Its People on Austin's Eastside
The living history of David Chapel
David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church was born, phoenixlike, out of the darkness of Austin's racial history. The congregation originated in 1924, when members of a community then south of Austin, concerned about boys playing marbles on Sundays, established a church in a former blacksmith shop. They've moved two times since: once in 1926 to the corner of 14th and Chestnut streets in East Austin, and again, as the church grew, to its current site at MLK and Chestnut in 1958.
With the second move, the church wanted to build a new sanctuary to accommodate its growing congregation, but white-owned banks refused to lend the money. Instead, David Chapel solicited funding from the St. John Regular Baptist Association (a coalition of churches in East Austin, still in existence) and hired John S. Chase – the first Black graduate of the UT-Austin School of Architecture – to design the sanctuary and Oliver B. Street to build it, making it an all-Black enterprise in the thick of Fifties Southern segregation. When Chase graduated, no architectural firms would hire him, so David Chapel became his first big project. Throughout his education, he had taken a special interest in Baptist churches; the plans for the chapel originated from his master's thesis, "Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church." The building was finished in 1959, and the congregation was able to fully pay off the mortgage 10 years later.
This past September, Pastor Joseph C. Parker Jr. celebrated his 28th year leading the congregation at David Chapel. He comes by civic engagement naturally, his father having been a Baptist pastor and civil rights activist in Birmingham, Ala. But Parker didn't immediately accept his religious birthright, opting instead for different flavors of public involvement. He worked in the city manager's office in Dallas, leaving that post in 1979 to attend UT Law School. He began preaching part time while in his last semester there, and took over full time in 1992 after his predecessor passed away. In the years since, he's led David Chapel in a community-oriented direction, becoming a bastion of leadership for the Chestnut neighborhood, for the Eastside, for Black Austin, and for the city at large. As Parker puts it, David Chapel is "a church with a heart for the community."
The Need for Change
In 1997, Parker submitted the Chestnut neighborhood for the city of Austin's pilot neighborhood planning program, a brand-new approach that sought to identify gaps in planning through neighborhood input after the failure of a prior effort to write a citywide comprehensive plan. "What prompted me to do that was that I already saw the neighborhood being gentrified," he said. "And I was concerned about protecting the interests of what I call the 'indigenous residents.' When we started the process, there were literally no sidewalks in the Chestnut neighborhood. And there were many, many vacant lots." He says developers were already offering to buy up houses, "but when [the owners] would look at where could they go, it might have been a big sum to them, but it wasn't enough to get them a new house elsewhere."
Chestnut ended up being selected, alongside Dawson and East Cesar Chavez, as one of the first three neighborhood plans. (David Chapel member Jeff Travillion, now county commissioner, presented the plan to Council.) As the Chestnut planning team worked through the process for two years, the neighborhood continued to change: "[The input] was only advisory," says Parker. "That was, in my mind, one of the weaknesses of the process – that it only spoke of desire, but didn't really implement anything to control the gentrification issue."
In the intervening years, the church itself began to outgrow its home at the northeast corner of the neighborhood. Like other Black Eastside churches, many of David Chapel's congregants moved out of Austin but continued to drive in for Sunday services from Round Rock, Pflugerville, Buda, and Kyle. They began discussing expansion around 20 years ago, says Parker.
"We don't have a lot of rooms. The building is predominantly [the] sanctuary. ... When it was built in '59 [it] just didn't have many classrooms, so we've outgrown it in terms of what we can do," the pastor said. Adding on to the current property was not an option; any new building would mean more parking spaces required by the Land Development Code. Parker says to accommodate new construction, David Chapel would've had to buy 5-7 more acres, which would mean encroachment on the surrounding neighborhood it had worked so hard to protect.
Instead, in 2009, the church found a new property on Springdale Road, large enough to accommodate an expanded campus. But until it sells its current property on Chestnut and MLK, David Chapel can't afford to move to Springdale.
The Case for Upzoning
To maximize the property's value and make a sale viable, the four different tracts that comprise David Chapel's 2.5-acre site need to be rezoned. Three are currently zoned P-NP, the designation the current LDC generally uses for public facilities, including places of worship. The other, which is actually Tract 2, is zoned for both P-NP and SF-3, the predominant single-family zoning category in the older parts of East Austin.
In July 2019, the congregation filed an application to rezone Tracts 1 and 3 as (take a deep breath) CS-MU-V-CO-NP, and Tract 4 as GR-MU-V-CO-NP. (That's "commercial services–mixed use–vertical–conditional overlay–neighborhood plan" for Tracts 1 and 3, with what used to be "general retail" but is now called "community commercial" taking the lead spot on Tract 4, and this is why people want to revise the Land Development Code.) Basically, this rezoning would allow the site to be rebuilt as a mixed-use development with retail, restaurants, and midrise residential buildings with a maximum height of 40 feet, acknowledging the site's proximity to the urban core (2 miles from the Capitol) and MLK's designation as a core transit corridor. The church community negotiated with the Chestnut Neighborhood Plan Contact Team to agree on certain exclusions – uses like automotive repair or sales, outdoor entertainment, and pawn shops will all be prohibited. Those negotiations also led to Tract 2 being omitted from the rezoning request, because of its close proximity to existing single-family homes.
By the time the case made it to the Planning Commission for a vote earlier this month (on Dec. 8), the contact team and church had agreed on zoning for the other three tracts, but the city's planning staff disagreed with plans for Tract 4 and proposed zoning that would primarily permit office use (LO-MU-CO-NP), with the possibility of some residential use. Nikelle Meade, an attorney with Husch Blackwell representing the church, estimated the zoning proposed by staff would decrease the overall opportunity for housing by half.
At the PC meeting, City Planner Heather Chaffin explained this recommendation was based on surrounding land uses – most of which are single-family residences. Commissioner Greg Anderson, puzzled that staff would reject an agreement already reached by the church and the neighborhood, noted that staff's less intense proposed zoning could result in larger single-family homes – like those nearby, valued at more than $500,000 – instead of the smaller, more affordable units that would likely be in a mixed-use development (like those at MLK Jr. Station, just a few blocks farther east). Chaffin replied that staff "does not weigh in on whether or not units are affordable in zoning."
Two other neighbors called in to the PC meeting to object. Brenda Malik, president of the newly designated Rogers-Washington Holy Cross Historic District close to Chestnut, asked for a delay to prioritize preserving the church building. Jordan Smith, another neighbor (and a former Chronicle staff writer), called to directly support the staff recommendation, saying the site sits between single-family homes of "long-time property owners" and that she supported "intensive single-family" development at the site instead of the taller construction allowed under mixed-use zoning.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido picked up on this, objecting to Anderson's reference to surrounding home prices. "We're not looking at a Zillow list of neighborhood listings; this is planning based on neighborhood use." Llanes Pulido and Anderson occupy polar opposite ends of the land-use spectrum and often feud at meetings – and on Facebook – and their back-and-forth about the specifics of David Chapel reflected their broader perspectives on how the city should manage growth through zoning.
Llanes Pulido, who ultimately abstained from the PC vote, expressed concern for the surrounding neighbors. "When we're talking about centering people who have been most impacted by institutional racism in Austin ... we also have to recognize the people who live with what happens to the property after those landowners have sold their land. And that does include people of color." After the PC meeting, she told the Chronicle that she wasn't trying to deny this upzoning, but "as a human being and as a native Austinite it breaks my heart ... You're literally reducing people to the price tag of their homes, and they're not for sale."
Anderson countered that perspective: "I get the folks who are like, 'Hey I live here, I'd rather not see change,' but that quite literally is the definition of NIMBYism – we have to maximize all of our redevelopment opportunities. The single best way to guarantee displacement in a growing community is to limit your new housing supply."
The David Chapel case shows how every instance of gentrification can start to look different once you examine it up close. The members of the contact team with whom the church negotiated the zoning agreement are newcomers, according to Parker: "Having been involved in the neighborhood going back at least to '97 – I don't think any of them were involved in the planning process for the neighborhood plan." (The acting director of the contact team, David Carroll, moved to Chestnut in 2008.) But the majority of the neighborhood supports the church's decision: Carroll told the Chronicle, "It is not for us to say whether they should go or not. The church's legacy is theirs to define."
Most of the congregation has already left Austin, says Parker, and has wanted the church itself to move for almost two decades. "As a matter of fact, people are eager for us to get [to the new property]. This has actually taken much longer than we expected." In addition to all that waiting, they've been paying taxes on the Springdale property; its religious exemption expired in 2016, as the church has been unable to build on the land and hold worship services.
Even as the church has been engaged in development activity around the move to Springdale this year, the Travis Central Appraisal District would not consider granting a religious exemption for that property, because the congregation is unable to assemble in person due to COVID-19. That means the church owes $79,000 in taxes for this year at the end of January unless its appeal is granted – making the tax bill for the last four years around $300,000, an even more urgent incentive for the church to rezone and sell its land on MLK.
The Case for Preservation
At the PC meeting, many drew attention to the historic significance of the Chase-designed building itself, expressing the importance of preserving it in some way. But as Commissioner João Paulo Connolly put it, "It's completely unfair that, [at] the moment a historic Black community in Austin is going to have an opportunity to choose their own destiny, all of a sudden we come in with concerns about historic preservation."
Parker explains that of course the congregation wants to preserve the sanctuary, perhaps by relocating the building to a different site. But that process will take time, and right now David Chapel's main priority is providing a more accommodating space for its thriving church community. Parker speculates that the city or UT-Austin would be more primed to preserve the chapel sanctuary, but he has not received any proposals from anyone.
"There are those in the community who seem to be historic preservationists ... but yet they don't come to us with a proposal. And what I have to conclude is that they want us to pay for continuing preservation and pay for a new facility." He laughs. "We're a church – we're not a business where we can charge somebody and get our $79,000 back."
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, whose District 1 includes both the MLK and Springdale homes of David Chapel, says there are options the city could consider for preservation but that "we absolutely have to recognize the implications of not allowing the church to go to a place where they actually get to grow. The church is the congregation and not the building. The true, unique aspect of the church is the people."
Despite the tensions around the case, Parker and the congregation did succeed. PC approved the applicant's upzoning request unanimously, with Llanes Pulido abstaining, and two days later, on Dec. 10, Council approved the same recommendation unanimously. The second reading vote is currently scheduled for Jan. 27.
As for the fate of Chase's historic building, Harper-Madison says to "stay engaged. Sometimes when things come before Council, it feels so final, people are scared and offended. [But just] because there was a vote does not mean shovels will hit the dirt tomorrow. Stay a part of the conversation – there will likely be opportunities for the community to weigh in on the appropriate path forward."