Church fields questions on Dream City project

PromiseLand West Bible Church's executive pastor, Michael Heflin, offered new details about the planned Dream City project and attempted to answer neighbors' questions.

Flanked by engineers and the project's lawyer, Heflin addressed more than 90 people at the Jan. 11 Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods meeting at the West Rural Community Center.

"This gives us an opportunity to be able to look at each other face-to-face. You can ask some questions as we go and hear firsthand from the church [about] what we're doing, what we're building and what's in our hearts," he began.

Heflin walked the audience through a brief slideshow presentation, stopping throughout to field questions or pass the microphone to church consultants.

The at-times contentious two-hour meeting was the church's first public forum since the City of Austin approved the site plan application Oct. 12. Neighborhood association officials have accused the church of having no significant communication with residents during the 2011 site plan application process.

At one point, Heflin called for everyone to take a deep breath. One man accused the church of shoving the project down the neighborhoods' throats before getting up and leaving the room.

Plan overview

PromiseLand West is a nondenominational Christian church of roughly 1,200 attendants that meets weekly at Westlake High School's performing arts center.

Dream City is an 11-acre facility zoned for religious assembly land use on 68 acres off of Hwy. 71.

Plans call for a roughly 68,000-square-foot multipurpose building with a sanctuary, educational features and offices.

A chapel is planned for a later phase; Heflin said the church does not yet have the funds to build it.

Plans also call for an outdoor amphitheater with 750 fixed seats and 250 portable seats. The number of people that may fit on supplementary lawn seating is unclear. Neighborhood associations have said that they do not mind the church being built, but they strongly oppose the amphitheater.

The site is expected to have 400 parking spaces. It is close to the neighborhoods of Covered Bridge, Hill Country Estates and Westview Estates and is in the greater Oak Hill area.

Current status

Earlier in the week, Heflin said workers were extending a city water main across the street to reach the site.

At the meeting, he added that contractors were going to hang steel for the multipurpose building within a week or two.

Heflin said the amphitheater's progress trailed the multipurpose building but that both should be finished about the same time.

Traffic

Project attorney Steve Metcalfe, of Metcalfe, Wolff, Stuart and Williams LLP, said the church conducted traffic improvement analyses in front of the site and for nearby intersections, including the Y at Oak Hill.

HDR Traffic Engineer Kathy Smith said the studies looked at peak afternoon weekday commuting hours and church peak hours on Sundays.

Metcalfe said that the Texas Department of Transportation plans to add a center turn lane and right-turn deceleration lane to Hwy. 71 in the first half of 2013. He said the project is fully funded and is expected to be contracted out.

"Given TxDOT's goal of moving traffic on roads, they don't envision a traffic light [at the church entrance]," he said. "We would love to have a traffic light there."

Metcalfe said that the church planned to look into park-and-ride options for the Travis County Annex and the Oak HIll Plaza shopping center. He added that the church also plans to have law enforcement officers working during church events.

Audience members commented that Oak Hill traffic "had no peak time" and raised concerns about cut-through traffic in Covered Bridge and how quickly TxDOT would build the road improvements.

Amphitheater capacity and use

The number of visitors who can fit in the amphitheater's lawn area varies depending on the source.

A city document that was part of the site plan application estimates about 1,000 seats and another 1,500 on the lawn, totaling 2,500 people.

The church's restrictive covenant allows for an "approximately 3,500-seat outdoor amphitheater."

Heflin said he does not know how many people could fit in the lawn section, but that it was going to be smaller than expected and would not contain 3,000 to 4,000 people.

"That's not part of the plan," he said, later estimating that 500 people may be able to sit there.

Residents asked how often the amphitheater would be used.

Heflin said the facility would not be used every week or even every month. He compared the location to major Christian promotions that produce four events a year. He said the site did not aspire to be The Backyard at Bee Cave, which hosts 10 commercial musical events annually.

Audience members asked the speakers about ticketed events and were concerned that the 400-parking-space limit would mean attendees would park in the neighborhoods.

Amphitheater sound

Heflin said PromiseLand West conducted four sound studies to gauge how the amphitheater would affect the community. The studies looked at the surrounding topography, how sound travels from the property and ambient and neighborhood noise.

"We want you to understand: We know we have to comply with the law, but for us to reach out to our community, we can't be a nuisance to that community," Heflin said. "If we are rattling your windows at night, there's not much of a chance for the people of our church to work with you and partner with you."

He said the church tested sound at a decibel level higher than the legal limit to gauge how far sound travels.

Heflin said the church reoriented the amphitheater based on the results of the study and will include noise-dampening roof structures and paneling. He added that the site will have noise monitors at the property edges so volumes can be adjusted during events.

The pastor reiterated the church's intention of the amphitheater be a community asset.

Two residents had asked why, faced with community opposition, the church did not enclose the amphitheater to create a soundproof indoor concert hall.

Heflin answered that the church had decided that it could reach people who would never attend a church by creating the facility. The pastor seemed to mean that event programming unique to an outdoor amphitheater could draw people to the site.

One man seated near the front of the room took the pastor's comments literally and jeered, "We don't want to be reached."

Reactions

At several points during the discussion, the audience applauded when residents made comments in opposition to the amphitheater or in favor of enclosing the amphitheater. Audience members pressed Heflin to put assurances about the amphitheater's use into the restrictive covenant.

Prior to the meeting, OHAN President Sandy Baldridge said she was glad the community and church were finally able to meet and answer questions for each other.

Several residents polled said they were there to learn about the project and specifically the amphitheater.

Covered Bridge resident and PromiseLand West attendee John Barr said he attended the meeting to learn about the project and was very excited about Dream City. He called the amphitheater a sanctuary in its own right and a fantastic addition to Oak Hill.

Al St. Louis said he enjoyed classic music ut not rock. A common concern among residents is that the amphitheater will be used for amplified Christian rock concerts.

"A lot of people are unhappy about this," he said. "A good portion of folks over there are elderly. They are not fans of this music."

During the meeting, Hill Country Estates resident Joan Nietsche said the construction noise is so loud that it is noticeable even through sound-resistant glass. She said she would rather hear owls and cardinals at night than religious music.

One resident asked what community PromiseLand West meant to partner with because this community was not in favor of the plan.

By Joe Olivieri
Joe covered Southwest Austin news for Community Impact Newspaper from January 2011 to April 2015. His reporting focused on new businesses, development, transportation, industry and Travis County issues. He was named the paper's managing editor in April 2015. Joe hails from New Jersey.


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