AUSTIN, Texas - The idea of converting the airport Hilton hotel into a homeless shelter and resource center was revealed Wednesday morning. The building is owned by the city and was once a military headquarters when Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was an Air Force base.
A homeless encampment surrounding City Hall, which was set up in protest of the reinstatement of the camping ban, served as a backdrop to the announcement made by business owner Rupal Chaudhari who organized the event.
"So look at the advantages versus the disadvantage, it’s not kicking the can, it’s saying we are going to spend our dollars, let’s spend it wisely," said Chaudhari.
The airport Hilton is being pitched as an alternative to the Candlewood Suites in Northwest Austin, which the city of Austin more than a year ago quietly targeted for a shelter and center. Residents and business owners nearby oppose the city’s plan, saying they were initially blindsided, then stonewalled. They fear converting Candlewood Suites into a shelter/center will destroy their neighborhood and will not truly address the problem of homelessness.
"We are looking out for the well-being of the unhoused, it’s not enough to just take it and place it somewhere else you have to have that targeted care and that’s what we’re concerned about, it’s not humane, it’s not compassionate to be out of sight out of mind," said Anderson Mill resident Bianca Ramirez.
In pitching the Hilton at ABIA, it's argued the site could help more people as it has more rooms and a larger commercial kitchen and is closer to public transportation and support services like a nearby substance abuse program. It is also close to the only sanctioned homeless camp in Austin at an old TxDOT facility near the intersection of SH 71 & US 183.
"It marks every single check box, " said Chaudhari.
Pushback from City Hall didn’t take long. In response to FOX 7’s request for comment, officials from the mayor's office cited an FAA safety and noise abatement regulation. It claimed the federal rules would prohibit using the Hilton for long-term housing.
A review of the documents the city sent FOX 7 shows the zoning around the Hilton not only allows for a hotel but a hospital and nursing home can be located there. There is nothing in the document that specifically mentions homeless shelters.
Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly who was at the announcement Wednesday predicted the alternate site idea would not be embraced. "I’m happy that they came out today with an idea and they pitched it to the city, where it goes I’m not sure yet," said Kelly.
What is certain is that on Thursday’s council agenda Item 89 includes a four-page resolution that has language to purchase the Candlewood Suites. The amount listed is $9 million. If the Austin City Council moves forward Thursday with the purchasing process of Candlewood Suites, that action is expected to trigger legal action from Williamson County as the hotel on Pecan Park Blvd is in the Williamson County part of Austin.
County Judge Bill Gravell told FOX 7 Austin the Thursday council vote will influence what he will do at next week's Commissioners Court meeting. "I will make a motion on Tuesday for commissioners court to consider taking all legal action necessary to stop this," he said.
Judge Gravell is upset because of a letter sent in May and signed by Mayor Steve Adler and the city council. It was his understanding the city was open to discussing alternate ideas. Gravell clearly expected conversations to continue, but the agenda item sent a much different message.
"And I want to say clearly to the mayor of Austin, do not mess with Williamson County, we should be having conversations with one with another to resolve the problems, not confrontations," said Gravell.
The next face-to-face in the dispute may be a courtroom face-off.