Monday, May 17, 2010

Churches As Good Neighbors

When they pave paradise, do they always put up a parking lot?

Here in the preened grotto of McMansions known in Dallas as the Park Cities, genteel Highland Park Presbyterian Church is facing a battle royale with its tony neighbors over a plan to put up a parking lot in the middle of their exclusive residential neighborhood.

At eighty years old and with roughly half the membership it had only fifteen years ago, this smaller yet still-vibrant church has decided that now, after all these years, it needs another parking lot. Currently, parishioners have a large but singular lot on church property, plus wide boulevards all around the church where they can park. Neighbors don’t understand why this arrangement can’t continue, especially since the congregation has shrunk so much, and even on Sunday mornings, street spaces sometimes go begging.

Not that this will be just any parking lot, mind you. It’s the Park Cities, after all; North Texas’ epicenter of conspicuous consumption. To average Americans, the Presbyterians won’t be destroying paradise with their planned parking lot, but from listening to frustrated neighbors, you’d think we were talking about a Wal-Mart.

Paradise for Cars?

Over the years, church visionaries have been quietly purchasing homes adjacent to their property as they’ve come up for sale, and now they have acquired enough of these faded manses to construct a parking lot for 145 cars. Instead of demolishing the homes it has purchased, however, the Presbyterians intend to use them as screening for their new parking facility, which will literally be an elegant park for cars.

You see, the parking area would be installed where backyards currently exist. Instead of tall light poles, ambient LED lighting would be installed in both mature and ornamental trees throughout the lot. Flowers, groundcover, hedges, more trees, and shrubs would run alongside tall, curving stone walls to thickly veil any view of cars in the lot from the street. And designers promise not one headlight will be visible by passersby.

Without understanding the exclusivity of the neighborhood, these plans seem like too much luxury for an ordinary church parking lot. But in the Park Cities, defying convention is part of why people pay to live here. And after all, exclusivity is ranked on a sliding scale. No matter where you live, parking lots rarely rank as neighborhood amenities. Would you want one across the street from your house? For neighbors around Highland Park Presbyterian, where property values hover around a million, a parking lot screened by anything – especially smaller, non-McMansion domiciles – is still a parking lot.

Plus, for high-net-worth neighbors around the church, it’s not only the cars they supposedly won’t see, but it’s the future plans for other parts of the church property that they aren’t being shown, either. This parking lot issue has developed a deep suspicion in many of them about the church’s overall designs for other buildings and land that it already owns.

Ownership Is 9/10th's

Which brings us to the issue of land ownership, that prized cornerstone of the American way of life. If the church has bought this property fairly and squarely, which it has, why can’t they do whatever they want – or need – to do with it? The church doesn’t wander up and down the impeccably landscaped University Boulevard telling its neighbors their remodels are too gaudy. If, as church leaders claim, this parking facility will be primarily for their elderly parishioners, how misguided a motive is that? And besides, the $1-million-plus project has already been completely funded by a church faith-promise campaign.

But speaking of money, when a non-profit acquires land, that land is usually removed from the tax rolls, and even though the already-staggering property tax rate in the Park Cities can probably absorb the loss here, it does mean that prime real estate in the heart of Dallas’ rival to Beverly Hills has been hereafter removed from the books for... a parking lot. Does the church practice good community stewardship by doing that?

Neighbors In Community

And what of the church’s witness to its surrounding community? So far, a well-organized opposition campaign has rallied residents throughout the Park Cities to its cause, appearing on local media and distributing yard signs decrying the church’s plans. Online message boards paint a grim picture of how they claim the church leadership has interacted with them. Granted, some people will always complain about everything, but the degree to which opposition has been sustained threatens to mark the church as unsympathetic and calloused to the concerns of its neighbors as it appears to be staunchly moving ahead with its plans.

Some Examples:

Although most growth in North America’s evangelical church has taken place in the wide-open spaces of suburbia and exurbia, central-city church expansion has posed problems for years.

Here in Arlington, Fielder Road Baptist Church grew at such a fast clip during the 1980’s and 1990’s that their campus started swallowing up an entire residential neighborhood bordering it. Church leaders considered relocating to an undeveloped area along an interstate, but decided to stay in-town, where its impressive colonial-style sanctuary was already a landmark of sorts.

While such dedication to aging central-city areas is noteworthy, the church’s leadership bungled its public relations campaign as they infiltrated the middle-class subdivision nearby, causing a small uproar and casting the pastors as self-righteous imperialists. Even here in the “Bible Belt,” having a clergyman use Christian-speak to promote the mission of the church does little to pacify residents fearful of overdevelopment. Fortunately, church leadership at Fielder Road Baptist managed to catch themselves before too much good-will was forfeited. They backed down from their hard-charging stance and forged a tempered expansion plan with their neighbors that took more time – and probably more money – but also salvaged some of their reputation in the community.

In recent years, the modest neighborhoods near Fort Worth’s cultural district have enjoyed a steady resurgence as a desirable central-city family-friendly district. There are no McMansions here, but the tidy pre-war bungalows and post-war tract homes have mixed fairly well with the newer apartments and, yes, some downright dilapidated eyesores to create a satisfying ambiance. Nestled in this unassuming community was Christ Chapel Bible Church, which in the past couple of decades found itself enjoying a surprising resurgence of its own.

After expanding and remodeling its tightly-spaced campus as much as possible, the congregation decided to build an all-new, larger complex in the same neighborhood. Church leadership envisioned clearing a wide swath of old, small houses and vacant businesses for their impressive new construction.

Their residential neighbors, however, were indignant at Christ Chapel. While appreciating the fact that the church wasn’t abandoning old, urban Fort Worth, residents found the tear-down hubris of the congregation insulting. As the church bought up properties and worked its way through the city’s re-zoning process, a vociferous opposition campaign ramped into high gear. After the dust settled, the church and its neighbors found some middle-ground, whereby the new construction took place closer to a nearby freeway, and instead of wiping out nearby blocks for an expansive parking lot, the church coughed up extra dollars for a parking garage.

And then there’s my own church, Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, which by way of full disclosure, split from Highland Park Presbyterian 19 years ago in dismay over liberalized policies in the latter’s denomination, reducing the aforementioned membership ranks at Highland Park to levels that have never rebounded. Park Cities Presbyterian relocated to an old Baptist church across the city line in Dallas, a property even more constrained by both residential and commercial development.

Park Cities Presbyterian didn’t really start out to be a mega-church, even though its first worship service held in a local high school drew 1,500 people. However, as the classical worship, evocative preaching, and theologically conservative denominational credentials of the church became known, membership flourished. It didn’t hurt that Park Cities Presbyterian formed just before evangelical Christianity witnessed a renewed interest in more liturgical styles of worship in a growing rebuttal of the contemporary movement that had eroded – and sometimes destroyed – other congregations.

So it was to everybody’s surprise when membership at Park Cities Presbyterian began topping 5,000 after only 10 years of existence. Parking was a supreme challenge – I remember walking up to 15 minutes in summer heat to attend church, wondering how many other people are willing to walk this far (after parking their car!!) to church in Texas? Sunday School space was maxed-out even after a large educational wing was constructed. Church leadership wanted to build even more classroom and office space, but the city of Dallas responded with a resounding no. At least, not until the church builds a huge parking garage.

Fortunately, the Mercedes-Benz dealership across the street decided to relocate, so the church was able to purchase part of the property that came with its own large parking lot. Other existing buildings along the street were purchased and former shops turned into classrooms. For a city the size of Dallas, taking these properties off of the tax rolls didn’t have nearly the impact that it would have had in smaller towns with less of a commercial real estate base. And the church could avoid spending millions more on a parking garage – at least for now.

Personally, I view parking lots as a necessary evil. Unless you live in a walkable city like New York, it’s really hard to get around without a personal vehicle. Yet you can’t stack cars like wood outside stores, restaurants, and churches. Still, it seems like such a waste of money and land for churches - not just Highland Park Presbyterian - to pave paradise and put up a parking lot that will only be used a few times a week.

It's Not Rocket Science

I believe churches should work with their commercial and residential neighbors to maximize nearby parking resources, and expect their membership to be responsible commuters to the church campus.

  • Shuttle buses: For several years, Park Cities Presbyterian ran a shuttle bus service between the church and the parking garage for an office tower several blocks away. It's not cheap, but it's cheaper, less permanent, and more neighborhood-friendly than a parking lot.
  • Carpooling: How many individual family members take different cars to church? If different members of the same family have different schedules at church, does it really hurt the others to have to wait or - gasp! - show up early?
  • Street parking: Neighborhoods around churches should work with the congregations to minimize street parking issues, and church members should park responsibly. If a business is open during the same hours as church, congregants should respect the parking needs of the business.
  • Valet service: One of the options floated for Highland Park Presbyterian is having a valet service for senior citizens; that way, seniors can drive up to the church and have an attendant park their car bumper-to-bumper in an off-premises lot, where parking space can be maximized.

Conclusion

Now, I’ve never owned a million-dollar home, so maybe I’m not qualified to say that Highland Park Presbyterian’s neighbors doth protest too much. Maybe even an elaborately-disguised parking lot will in fact depress property values.

Quite honestly, it sounds like many of them haven’t even seen the designer’s plans for the parking lot, which I find to be quite clever and extraordinary.

But if - to paraphrase the late Gertrude Stein - a parking lot is a parking lot is a parking lot, then I have to admit that the church’s concerned neighbors have a point, too. Have all other parking options been exhausted? Has church leadership been appropriately honest towards and respectful of dissenting opinions? How did Highland Park Presbyterian survive for so long with so many more members without 145 extra parking spaces?

I mean, back then, those Cadillac’s and Lincoln’s took up far more space than they do today.

4 comments:

  1. I'm curious about what the church plans to do with the houses that serve as parking lot-camouflage. Will they be left vacant? Will they be gutted and left to serve as nothing more than movie set props?

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  2. You know, that is a very good question. I wondered that myself, but couldn't find online what their plans were. As far as I can tell (I was just there last night for a concert) most of the homes are vacant but relatively well-kept; a couple appear to be rented out. Highland Park Presbyterian was the long-time church of Billy Graham's late brother-in-law, Dr. B. Clayton Bell, who spearheaded a massive missions work at the church; maybe the homes will be used as missionary lodging or something. I'll have to check into that!

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  3. I'm familiar with the area. I can't help but wonder if the neighbors are really worried about who might wind up in the houses. From afar, it sounds like they're talking around that.

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  4. I had a meeting today in Dallas, so I drove by HPPC again, and it looks like all but 2 of the homes are currently occupied. In daylight, one looks to be in a state of disrepair. Maybe the church is either renting them out or using them as meeting/office space - two scenarios that I can imagine the church's neighbors would not find ideal.

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