Hostel Takeover Averted – For Now
Lease extension for Hostelling International's Austin franchise exposes a few cracks
Sometime soon, the city hopes, construction on the long-coveted boardwalk extension of the hike-and-bike trail along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake will begin. When completed, the 1.1-mile stretch of overland and over-water pathway will offer hikers and bikers a more sylvan route to the Westside than their current option, which takes them across I-35 on Riverside Drive. It will also complete a gap in what the prime trail motivators of the Trail Foundation call "the 10 mile hub in Austin's hub-and-spoke system of trails."
The Austin franchise of Hostelling International sits on S. Lakeshore Boulevard, just shy of the boardwalk's eastern end on a stretch of pretty but, some might say, underutilized parkland. There, it offers affordable beds to mostly young, budget-conscious travelers staying within sight of Downtown. If all goes according to plan, the boardwalk will soon offer hostel guests a quick, easy route to some of Austin's most visitor-friendly commercial districts. However, it's not entirely clear whether hostel guests will get to enjoy that perk. After a set of administrative extensions on a contract that expired at the end of 2010, Parks and Recreation Department officials were ready to end their relationship with the hostel some time in 2013. That news set off something of a political scramble at City Hall, where the facility has defenders. It also exposed an unsteady series of decisions by PARD. Speaking at a council hearing that sought to extend the hostel's lease for another 10 years, Council Member Laura Morrison summed it up: "The reason that we're here in the first place is that an administrative decision was made with no public input to terminate the hostel agreement. The important thing here is that it should be a public process ... it's inappropriate to be making administrative decisions like that."
Texas state law tends to hedge toward open use of land. One of the precious few protections offered by the state to those who enjoy a green space or two is what's known as a Chapter 26 hearing. Chapter 26 is a section of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code that mandates a public hearing anytime parkland is used for anything other than a park. Technically, this means that the hostel – which is not a park facility, but which sits on parkland – should have been subjected to a Chapter 26 hearing. That never happened.
When asked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell at the council hearing why this might have been the case, PARD director Sara Hensley said, "I can't answer that question." A few days earlier, when local online tipsheet In Fact Daily asked Hensley the same question she offered a bit more detail. "This department has over 300 agreements. Many of them have slipped through the cracks," she said.
This is not the first time that the hostel's lease has come under threat. Back in 2000, PARD gave the hostel its notice, with the rumored intent of turning the building into departmental office space. Then-Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's office stepped in, and the lease was renewed. This time, the pending boardwalk appears to be an impetus. In a Dec. 20, 2011, letter to council members, Hensley wrote that "the boardwalk completion in late December 2013 ... allows the department to transition this site to other operations that meet community needs as well as the co-location of a Park Ranger/Park Police office."
The hostel's lease was originally set to expire in December 2010. Hensley had extended it administratively, without council action and without a Chapter 26 hearing – thus Morrison's comment. Even though Hensley has repeatedly said that the hostel has been an excellent tenant, she was not inclined to do that again. "It's really my job just to say, 'I believe, because it's public parkland, that we have to do [a Chapter 26 hearing],'" she said. "But ultimately, honestly, it's the city attorney, it's what they advise council, and then council ultimately makes that decision on what they want to do. ... They make policy, and that's what I follow."
Rumors were floating at City Hall that the Trail Foundation was pushing for the installation of some sort of public concession at the hostel's current location. "As we started realizing that [the hostel's] lease would be coming up, we started looking at that," Hensley said. She added that she "got an email from a citizen that just suggested ... have you thought about putting canoeing and kayaking and those kinds of opportunities east of I-35 once you have the boardwalk area." She also noted that she had "had conversations with the executive director of the Trail Foundation asking ... her [for her] thoughts about" the matter, and said that the Trail Foundation "think[s] some type of concession might go well with the extension of the boardwalk."
The Trail Foundation declined comment through a spokesperson.
According to Hensley, hostel officials were willing to entertain a move. "When I started working with them, I think the idea was that they wanted to build a new facility," she said. Hensley adds that she spent half a day traveling to other park sites that the department considered suitable. Hostel Executive Director Kassi Darakhshan confirms Hensley's account. However, Darakhshan says it became apparent that a move would be cost-prohibitive. "Everything that we looked at was way out of our budget," she says. Darakhshan adds that the hostel's current location – a key factor for the facility – tipped the scales against a move. "We realized that this location is amazing," she says. "You can't beat [it]."
In council's March 1 meeting, Council Member Mike Martinez brought forward a resolution that would have granted the hostel a 10-year extension on its lease. With it, Martinez was ready to waive the Chapter 26 hearing. Lucky for council, no one had to answer the question of whether this would actually be legal. On an amendment from Council Member Bill Spelman, and agreed to by Darakhshan, there will be a hearing. The resolution and the amendment passed unanimously. Chances are that everything will work out. The hostel has neighborhood support, and Hensley has indicated that she is ready to work with the group to keep it where it is. There were even indications on Thursday that some sort of a win-win – with the hostel cohabitating with a concession – could be arranged.
But Morrison's basic question remains: PARD's internal processes look to have complicated what, it turns out, might be an elegant, friendly solution. To be fair, Hensley – who was hired in 2008 – probably inherited much of this complicated process. Still, coupled with her fall-through-the-cracks statement, the snafu raises another question: What else is out there?