Naked City

Going Postal

Naked City
Photo By John Anderson

Since Sept. 2, when Classified Parking started charging nighttime Warehouse District patrons $4 to park at the U.S. Postal Service's Downtown Station lot, both the post office and Classified have received their share of angry phone calls, letters, and in-person feedback. "We've had some belligerent people stop by," says Classified vice president John Moore. "One guy called us assholes and brought in the police. While he was waiting, he promised to take his case to the mayor, City Council, Texas Legislature, and U.S. Supreme Court."

But angry patrons accustomed to free downtown parking have little legal recourse against the company, thanks to a recent letter from the Postal Service authorizing Classified to collect for parking from 6pm-6am every day -- allowing free 30-minute parking only for post office customers. The letter, which Classified employees keep on hand to distribute to angry parkers, is the byproduct of an August deal between the post office and Classified. "We told them from the beginning we'd need the letter because we knew we'd never see so many proud taxpayers until you take away their free parking," Moore says. "All of a sudden, everyone is a proud taxpayer."

If federal, state, and city agencies can't charge patrons for the use of their facilities, what's the loophole? According to post office representatives, the post office can charge for parking because it doesn't depend on tax revenue for its operations; since 1982, the agency has operated entirely on postage and fees, not taxes. That distinction allows the office to do whatever it wants to with its property both inside and outside post office stations; at its Chimney Corners Station in Northwest Austin, the post office rents space to Chesapeake Bagel Bakery.

In return for its after-hours use of the downtown lot, Classified pays for rent, labor, and insurance costs. "We saw this as another way to create revenue and keep postage rates low," says Postal Service spokeswoman Barbara Pokorny. "We didn't mean to upset people, but they've been parking free at the downtown branch for three years already."

Perhaps more surprising than the fact that the Postal Service can charge for parking is that they've been doing it in downtown Austin for years. According to Pokorny and Moore, the latest Postal Service/Classified deal stems from the success of a similar arrangement that's quietly been in place in a two-story garage on East Ninth Street, next to Jaime's Spanish Village and across from Stubb's. The lot "was the parking for the old post office and the land still belongs to the Postal Service," Pokorny says.

And while both Classified and the post office contend that the new deal was necessary to alleviate the security, trash, and liability issues free parking presents, neither party is expecting the negative feedback to let up any time soon. "Any time people have been parking for free and then they have to pay for it, there's going to be backlash," Moore says. "And while people can be resentful as long as they want, the fact is, there's no entitlement to use somebody else's property."

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