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Council battles over rezoning for church

Monday, October 8, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

At their meeting last Austin City Council members approved on first reading rezoning measures that would allow a South Austin church to consider all of its property General Office, but not before several members voiced their concerns that the rezoning could signal an ugly shift in the city’s development priorities.

The Christian Life Church of Austin’s 4.7-acre property at 4700 West Gate Boulevard is a mish-mash of zoning designations, including single-family 2 and multi-family 2, with and without conditional overlays. In order to normalize that zoning, and to make it possible for the church to develop their property, representatives have asked Council to rezone the entire property General Office (GO).

City staffers and the Zoning and Platting Commission are comfortable with the GO rezoning, along with a conditional overlay limiting the number of vehicle trips to 2,000 a day. But before approving the change at their August 7 meeting, ZAP members added two conditions: 1) limiting development on the site to only religious assembly projects; and 2) prohibiting access to or from the property from the small cul-de-sac street to its north, Windswept Cove. That street is populated mainly by multi-family residential properties, and commissioners were concerned “about the intensity of the use,” Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey told Council members.

Representatives for the church asked Council to grant them the rezoning without those two conditions. Josh Reynolds, a pastor, said they could live without access to Windswept Cove though having it would prevent bottlenecking in the church’s parking lot before and after its two weekly services; but the main issue is having access to the 80 percent impervious cover allowances that come with unrestricted GO zoning and that would allow them to have more on-site parking to handle the “explosion in popularity” the church has experienced recently. He said the congregation is hoping to build a new church building (and perhaps have a school and medical offices onsite) and that GO zoning would allow it to do so, but that would be “phase two.”

“The building isn’t as important as parking as many vehicles as we can in a safe manner and also having a proper exit strategy for getting them in and out in a safe manner,” Reynolds said. “We need more parking for more cars.”

But several Council members expressed concern that the church’s requests could damage the surrounding community. After making a motion to approve the ZAP recommendations, Council Member Laura Morrison said prohibiting access to Windswept Cove is important for the surrounding neighborhood, especially since the church expects between 1,500 and 1,700 people at services every Sunday and Wednesday.

“It’s a very short street,” Morrison said. “I’m concerned about having 1,000 cars come through there, and it’s a residential street. It seems out of character to essentially turn that into a driveway.”

Morrison took issue with Council Member Spelman, who responded that two services a week wouldn’t seem like much for a multi-family neighborhood off a heavily trafficked street like West Gate Boulevard and with a daycare on the corner.

Morrison said, “I’d like to point out that people who live in apartments are people too, and having 1,000 cars stream in front of your place could be pretty annoying on Sunday morning.”

Even so, Morrison couldn’t compete with Council Member Chris Riley when it came to the passionate conviction that ZAP’s proposed restrictions are not only valuable but also vital for the surrounding area, and for the city at large. He said he didn’t have a problem with the Windswept Cove access but rather with the church’s request for more impervious cover for more parking. Especially, Riley said, when there’s already off-site parking across West Gate that the church already uses.

“I don’t think this church is being a good neighbor,” Riley said. “We’re going to subject those residents on Windswept Cove not only to continued hostile conditions on West Gate Boulevard but also to a huge influx of traffic twice a week. And the other five days a week it’s just going to be a huge empty parking lot twice as big as the one now. We’re penalizing those residents of Windswept even further.

“Essentially we’re abandoning the possibility of anybody walking along West Gate, which is just a depressing prospect to me. We ought to have a city where we respect our streets, where people are expected and encouraged to walk along our streets, where we have appealing conditions where people enjoy walking on the streets and greeting each other on the way to church. Historically churches were a wonderful presence on the street. This won’t even have a door facing the street. I’m just disappointed in the urban environment we’re creating here.”

Riley wasn’t able to convince any of his colleagues to reject the church’s rezoning request entirely, however. Council voted 5-1 in favor of the ZAP recommendations on first reading, with Riley voting against and Council Member Mike Martinez off the dais.

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