May 13, 2022

 

 

Candlewood hotel again causes controversy

 

news photo

Judge Bill Gravell shared photos of the unsheltered encampment at Pecan Park Tuesday. 

Photo Courtesy of Williamson County

Residents, judge say homeless activity has increased in the area

By KATE THURMOND

Four Williamson County residents spoke to commissioners Tuesday, outlining alleged increased activity by homeless individuals near the Candlewood Suites hotel site, which is slated to be converted into a future resource center and shelter for the homeless population. 

The former Candlewood Suites — located on Pecan Park Boulevard near the Lakeline Mall — was purchased by the City of Austin on August 24 of last year for $9.5 million. 

The city purchased the property despite opposition from nearby residents and business owners and the Williamson County Commissioners Court. The hotel site resides in Williamson County, but is within Austin’s city limits. 

When renovated into a shelter or resources center, the site is intended to house unsheltered people from tent encampments near Pecan Park, which were bringing complaints of harassment from residents in the area. 

Residents concerned

According to a City of Austin Homeless Strategy Division spokesperson, the hotel on Pecan Park Boulevard is currently vacant in anticipation of construction. 

While the hotel may be closed, the court heard Tuesday from multiple residents and business owners of the area surrounding the building who say that the activity of unsheltered people has already increased. 

Michael Greco, an employee of the Hampton Inn and Suites near Candlewood for 15 years, said he noticed an increase in unsheltered activity in the past two years. Predominantly, the business owners in the area say that people are removing TVs and linens from the vacant hotel, among other unidentified items. 

“Ever since [the city of Austin] bought the Candlewood, we’ve had problems,” he said. “We’ve had problems from the homeless in the camp, people breaking our fences to get in [to the vacant hotel]. We have problems with people’s cars getting broken into, converters getting stolen, people living in the cars in the parking lot.”

He claimed that the homeless individuals break the small fence on the Hampton’s property to gain access to the Candlewood building, and that all of the activity has been reflected in customer reviews.  

“We’ve had people not come back to our hotel because of [the Candlewood],” he said.  

Another nearby business owner and longtime Williamson County resident Freda Cheng of Freda’s Seafood Grill confirmed that she too had witnessed individuals crossing in the front and back areas around her restaurant. 

“I see people with heavy backpacks walking from Candlewood past the restaurant,” she said. “They have grocery carts sometimes with a lot of stuff in them.” 

She said that an SUV parked behind her restaurant had been vandalized — its windows smashed and tires cut. 

Bianca Ramirez, a resident of the Anderson Mill neighborhood close by. said during the meeting that the surrounding residential areas had been affected by the purchase of the hotel as well, and that the homeless encampment at Pecan Park appeared to have grown and spread since August of last year. 

“Many do not see the deteriorating state of Austin’s unhoused crisis like we do, especially near Pecan Park where a huge encamp remains,” she said. “The unhoused break into not only Candlewood to steal items, but walk around our neighborhood and steal items from our front and backyards.”

All of the speakers called on help from Williamson County to mitigate these problems, stating that they had had little response from law enforcement when they reported these issues. 

“The only person that can help is Williamson County,” Ms. Cheng said. “We’re too small to do anything.” 

Judge weighs in

County Judge Bill Gravell said he had been made aware last evening that a group of unsheltered individuals had broken into the closed Candlewood Suites last Thursday and began to live there. The information came to him, he said, from a firefighter who had responded to the scene when the fire alarms in the hotel were tripped. He said he also received photos of the individuals removing TVs from the hotel that were shared with the Austin Police Department. 

The Austin Homeless Strategy Division said all individuals who trespassed in the building were successfully removed by Austin law enforcement, and the building was secured. 

Mr. Gravell shared other pictures with the court he had received of an encampment, which may be the Pecan Park encampment nearby. 

“The city of Austin bought Candlewood to deal with the homeless crisis,” he said. “But they have failed to deal with the homeless crisis.” 

He said that there are now “homeless encampment that [are] less than 100 yards in the woods out back of Candlewood suites” that has become “a significant danger” to the community. 

“The city of Austin has done nothing to solve the problem,” he said. 

He criticized the city’s decision to purchase hotels to be used as shelters, claiming that they “pushed the homeless all across the community.” 

Precinct 4 Commissioner Russ Boles also spoke out against the purchase of Candlewood to be used as a shelter, saying that this violated Austin’s own zoning laws. 

“They’re not living by their own rules,” he said. “This is something they would not allow any other property owner to get away with.” 

Mr. Gravell said he was disappointed with the actions of the city of Austin with regards to the citizens in the area of Candlewood. 

“The city moved full steam ahead with no consideration for residents in the Austin part of Williamson County,” he said.  “I will use every tool and resource in my disposal to protect my residents.” 

He did not offer any immediate resolutions to the concerns, but said he will “speak with everyone I need to find the answer.” 

Precinct 1 Commissioner Terry Cook suggested that appropriate barriers be put in place around the building to deter individuals from breaking in. 

A contract with Family Eldercare funding renovations for Candlewood Suites activities is on the Austin City Council agenda for next Thursday, May 19. Building improvements will begin once permits are approved and approval of federal funds is granted. A construction period of approximately six months is expected.