With resources limited in homelessness initiatives, potential of former HealthSouth property sparks disagreement on City Council

The 87,744-square-foot campus formerly occupied by HealthSouth has remained vacant for several years. (Courtesy Google Maps)
The 87,744-square-foot campus formerly occupied by HealthSouth has remained vacant for several years. (Courtesy Google Maps)

The 87,744-square-foot campus formerly occupied by HealthSouth has remained vacant for several years. (Courtesy Google Maps)

As city officials continue to grapple with Austin’s homelessness challenges with admittedly limited resources, some council members are asking how the city could use a long-abandoned downtown hospital for temporary shelter.

Formerly occupied by HealthSouth as a 60-bed rehabilitation hospital, and later bought by the city in 2017, the 87,744-square-foot property has sat empty at 1215 Red River St. for years, despite its attractive downtown location. A comprehensive analysis performed by consultants in 2017 showed rehabbing the property into housing was not financially feasible for the city. In late 2019, City Council agreed to ask the private sector to come up with an idea for the property. Proposals are due back in March, according to city staff.

However, as the city continues to pursue purchases of motels for conversion into housing-focused shelters for those experiencing homelessness, some City Council members want to know why the city is not considering the former HealthSouth property as a shelter option while the city awaits private-sector proposals.

“[We’ve] had conversations that it would be difficult to use the building because of repairs, but I don’t know what repairs need to be done,” District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “We’ve been talking since June [about] that. It would be important for the council and public to know what repairs are needed to get that building occupied.”

District 5 City Council Member Ann Kitchen echoed Tovo’s comments, and pushed city staff to get answers as soon as possible.

“It’s just sitting empty right now in the face of some very critical needs,” Kitchen said. “As soon as [staff] can respond, that would be helpful. Then the council can make a decision if we want to ... put the resources toward whatever it takes to use it. As it sits right now, it’s just in limbo while time passes and we have great needs.”

City Manager Spencer Cronk said he would have city staff put the information together. However, District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, whose district surrounds the property, said she understood the building to be unusable while the requests for proposals from the private sector were coming in.

“My office has been told numerous times that it’s not a viable option to be used [as a shelter] in the interim,” Harper-Madison said. “Just as a professional courtesy, HealthSouth is in District 1. If you have questions about what will happen with the future of HealthSouth, I’d like very much for the conversation to start with [me].”

Harper-Madison told Community Impact Newspaper that using the property temporarily as a temporary shelter was not feasible. She said HealthSouth is one piece in a chain of change happening in that area. She said the future use of the building is especially connected to the realignment of Red River Street, which City Council approved in February 2019.

Tovo assured Harper-Madison she would be included in any future conversations about HealthSouth.

“All of us are accountable to the public, many of whom have asked me, ‘If you’re considering the purchase of a motel, why wouldn’t you look at HealthSouth?’” Tovo said.

Although the building will remain empty for now, city staff has announced HealthSouth’s property will be used as a resource in the city’s homelessness battle.

Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes told City Council Jan. 21 that the HealthSouth parking garage will store at least 300 bins for those experiencing homelessness to store their belongings beginning in March. Figuring out how to offer storage services for those experiencing homelessness has been a priority for City Council and city staff as the city’s homelessness challenges have grown.

By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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