Naked City

Hostel Exchange

Hostel director Gary Walker
Hostel director Gary Walker (Photo By John Anderson)

The walls of the Austin Youth Hostel are covered in postcards, flags, and mementos from around the world. It's breakfast time at the hostel, and a diverse group of young adults from around the world sit exchanging stories and laughter. Every kind of person -- from a bran-muffin-eating preppie in khaki shorts and T-shirt to a skater with a pierced nipple -- is represented.

This nonprofit youth hostel, which has been in operation for 11 years, is one of the few places in Austin that provides affordable lodging for visitors. But before the year is over, hostel supporters fear, the building that houses the hostel will be transformed into office space for the Austin Parks and Recreation Dept., which sent a letter to the hostel on April 27 informing it that the city was not renewing the hostel's lease. On Nov. 1, the city plans to take over the building on 2200 S. Lakeshore Blvd. to house the department's aquatics division.

The department decided to take over the city-owned hostel building because the demolition of the department's building on West Riverside, where the new Town Lake Park is planned, along with next year's scheduled demolition of another building on Dawson Street, has the department facing a major space shortage. "The aquatics division needs a place to go," said Jim Halbrook, spokesman for PARD.

The hostel began using the former Austin Boathouse building in 1989, when it took over the dilapidated structure and started rebuilding it. A building that was once in ruins was transformed into a hostel complete with dormitories, showers, laundry room, common area, kitchen, and a manager's quarters. About $90,000 worth of renovations were made to the building.

Besides offering affordable lodging, the hostel hosts summer development programs for disadvantaged teens, environmental action and awareness projects, and travel, cultural, and language programs. "They turned over to us a vacant, run-down shell of a building and we turned it into a world-class program at no cost to the city," said hostel director Gary Walker. "They just let use the shell."

Previously, the upgrade and maintenance of the building was the hostel's rent. But for the past two years, negotiations for a new lease have been ongoing. According to the city, PARD offered to let the hostel stay in the building if they agreed to a $2,000-per-month lease, but the hostel refused. So the city decided to take over the building, Halbrook said.

The hostel claims that leasing negotiations were still pending when the city sent the eviction letter. A decision on whether or not the hostel would or could pay the rent was never reached. Negotiations ended with the letter and an agreement had not been reached before the letter was sent.

The fact remains that no matter how the city came to this point, Austin is still in danger of losing its only year-round hostel. "This definitely a life-and-death situation for the hostel: If we don't have the building to operate our program, it's gone," said Walker. "Our job is to run the hostel and we have to have a building to do that."

But despite the termination letter, the hostel is working to stay alive. Last week, hostel representatives urged the City Council to consider putting the aquatics divisions in available city space at 12th and Hargrave. The council passed a resolution directing the city staff to create a planning process for the property. The issue of whether to house the aquatics division in the available space has not been decided. Staff has 90 days from June 22, the date of the meeting, to devise a plan for the property.

Both Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher voiced support for the hostel. "I was unaware that the youth hostel had actually been given notice to move, and I don't think that is a good idea at all," said Goodman. "I would like to talk to someone in city administration about that. It's a good use for a hostel. It's very wasteful use for office space."

Back at the hostel, one young man speaks enthusiastically about his experience at the hostel as he brushes his dark pageboy hair behind his ears. "I've met people from all over the world," says Kevin Elder, an 18-year-old from Portland, Oregon. "It's a really comfortable and friendly place." And what about the possibility of the hostel's demise? "It's just stupid," Elder says. "If it wasn't for the hostel, there is no way I could have afforded to stay here for two weeks."

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