Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/ KUT
Monday, May 17, 2021 by Marisa Charpentier, KUT

A beloved post office in Hyde Park is closing. The Austin neighborhood wants to know why.

Barbara first heard the rumor from the mailman.

Deaton learned the news from her neighborhood listserv.

Michele saw the gossip on Facebook.

And it was true: The post office that’s sat at the corner of 43rd and Speedway in Hyde Park for decades was closing.

“I was immediately horrified,” said Deaton Bednar, who’s lived in Hyde Park since the 90s. “It’s a real community, and a big part of that is the post office.”

Word of the closure began swirling through the neighborhood in March and April. Concerned residents lamented the news on the social networking site Nextdoor, questioning how such a busy facility could close and wondering what would happen to the many P.O. boxes and employees. Some started digging around to find out why this was happening. People started a letter-writing campaign and reached out to their representatives to see if there was a way to stop it.

But come April 26, it was official: P.O. box users received a note saying the post office would close June 18. Their boxes would be moved to the Northcross Station, about four miles north.

That was a big change for Kirby McDaniel. He has a business selling vintage film posters, and he’s used a P.O. box at the Speedway location regularly since 1994. An East Austin resident, he says the location has always been convenient for him.

Thinking the Northcross Station would be too far away, he got a new box at a slightly closer location.

“I can’t afford to be without it,” he said. “I moved it to the Tarrytown post office, which is a considerably farther drive for me. It changes my daily routine significantly, but you know, it had to be done.”

 

It’s also a substantial shift for Barbara Epstein, who lives in the nearby Hancock neighborhood. She goes to the Speedway post office to buy stamps and mail packages. She’s legally blind, so she normally takes a bus partway and then walks.

“I don’t drive,” she said. “So, you know, this idea that I’m going to go up to Northcross Drive is absurd.”

Epstein posted about the situation on Nextdoor and started reaching out to officials. She wrote a letter to the local postmaster, Douglas Watson, and encouraged some 20 other people to do the same. The goal: to get the post office to stay, and if not, get another one placed nearby at Hancock Center.

“I think that’s a legitimate request,” she said. “That post office gets used a lot. It’s always busy.”

Why Is It Closing?

So, why is the post office closing? That depends on who you ask, and maybe, what you want to believe.

The majority of U.S Postal Service properties in the U.S. are leased – about 23,000 – while only about 8,400 are owned by the agency. The Speedway location, officially known as the North Austin Station, is one of those leased facilities. It’s a single-story, 10,000-square-foot space that’s been there since the 1960s. People visit for a number of reasons – to mail things, pick up stamps, get a passport. It sorts mail for the 78705 ZIP code, which doesn’t actually include Hyde Park but the West and North Campus neighborhoods.

Rumors spread on Nextdoor about the reasons behind the closure. People speculated this was another example of a property owner taking advantage of a hot real estate market in a prime Central Austin neighborhood.

The USPS sticks by the narrative that the landowner did not want to renew the lease.

“As an integral part of the communities we serve, the U.S. Postal Service strives every day to provide excellent service to our valued customers,” the agency said in a statement to KUT. “In the case of the North Austin Station, at 4300 Speedway, which is a leased facility, the current lease was not renewed by the lessor.”

But the property owner says that’s not true. Blake Thompson, the agent for the company that owns the property, 43rd Speedway, LLC, said there was a dispute over appraisals, but it was ultimately clear that the Postal Service didn’t want to renew the lease.

The current lease was set to expire June 30. Thompson said he and the company that manages leases for the USPS began negotiations for renewing the lease in 2018. The disagreement comes down to appraisals, which are professional estimates of the value of a property.

Thompson said the firm negotiating for the USPS got an appraisal that was far too low to be reasonable. He then got his own appraisal done, but the company rejected it.

“They sent me a take-it-or-leave-it offer, which was based on the lowest of all of the appraisals that they got,” Thompson said. “They just didn’t want to come to terms.”

He said when he started asking questions about the situation, he was pointed to information about the USPS being pressured to consolidate operations to save money.

“Then it became clear to me that the post office did not want to renew this lease, so we both just walked away,” he said.

When asked to respond to Thompson’s claims about the lease situation, the USPS said it “does not publicly discuss lease issues.” KUT asked the firm that manages leases for the postal service to shed light on the negotiations, but was told the company’s “policy is to not comment on client engagements.”

Transparency

This wouldn’t be the first time there have been conflicting explanations for a post office closure. The USPS has been known to manufacture lease negotiation problems to justify closing a post office, according to Save the Post Office, a website that provides information on post office closings.

And it’s no secret the USPS has been losing money regularly for some time now. The agency’s 10-year plan, released in March, aims to save $160 billion over the next decade through a number of means, including cutting post office hours and raising prices. It also proposes consolidating some post office stations and branches with low traffic.

But closing a USPS retail facility – that can include a post office, station or branch – isn’t exactly easy or swift. Federal law establishes rules for the closure process. The USPS is supposed to provide a 60-day notice, accept public comments and share reasons for closing a site. People served by the location can appeal the closure to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which can require the USPS to reconsider its decision. Ultimately, though, the decision to close is up to the USPS.

There are ways to circumvent the required closure process. The USPS can cease operations at a facility without that process if a lease or rental agreement is terminated. It’s been criticized for taking this route to close locations before. Users of the North Austin Station in Hyde Park told KUT they felt the notification process wasn’t very transparent. The note to P.O. box users was sent less than 60 days before the post office is set to close, and it didn’t include reasons for the closure.

The Future of 43rd and Speedway

What will become of the property after the post office is gone is unclear. Thompson said he didn’t know the post office would be moving out officially until he saw the note sent to P.O. box customers on April 26. He said he doesn’t have a new tenant or know what long-term plans for the space will look like.

But he has been talking with members of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. During a meeting in early May, HPNA leaders shared that Thompson was open to having a storefront post office, without the sorting facility, so people could still do things like buy stamps and drop off mail. That decision, though, would ultimately be up to the USPS.

Some residents are happy about the post office leaving. During the meeting, a resident who lives across the street said he’s glad the loading dock will be going away, along with the loud trucks that pull in and back up early in the morning.

But others are sad to lose a walkable resource that’s long been part of the fabric of the neighborhood. The post office is nestled between houses and apartment complexes, just down the street from local hangouts like Julio’s Cafe and Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery. On any given day, people walk in to buy a sheet of stamps and chat with the postal clerks or check their P.O. boxes.

“It’s just a real kind of hub for the neighborhood,” said Michele Grieshaber, co-president of the HPNA. “There’s a lot of foot traffic that comes in there.”

Having gone there for decades, McDaniel says he knows all the employees, and they’ve had his back on a number of occasions. They’ve looked out for his packages and let him know if any were late. One time, he left his phone there and they made sure to get it back to him.

“It has a very collegial atmosphere with a lot of empathy for the postal patrons,” he said.

The post office contributes to the quaint feel of the neighborhood, which many are keen on maintaining. Bednar says walking through Hyde Park can sometimes feel like “going back in time.” Austin’s oldest suburb, Hyde Park contains many historic homes, an old fire station, the Elisabet Ney Museum and Avenue B Grocery, one of the city’s oldest continuously operating grocery stores. The post office adds to that sense of nostalgia.

“It’s just a piece of the neighborhood,” she says.

But if you live in Austin long enough, you learn what it’s like to have something that’s always been there suddenly disappear. Hyde Park isn’t immune to that. The beloved Mother’s Cafe closed just last year. And over time, many old homes have been flipped or replaced by apartment complexes. Residents know nothing is permanent, no matter how essential it feels.

“The building didn’t belong to (the USPS) anyway, right?” Grieshaber says. “The building is just a building, and that’s, I think, the lesson for me in this.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photos by Gabriel C. Pérez/ KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Hyde Park Neighborhood Association: Hyde Park is defined by West 38 Street to the south, West 51 Street to the north, Duval Street to the east, and Guadalupe Street to the west. Hyde Park contains two historic districts, the Hyde Park Historic District and the Shadow Lawn Historic District, and several other individual historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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