When the residents of Venice, CA found out in July 2011 that their 1939 post office was being put up for sale, they rallied to fight it. They protested, handed out flyers, collected thousands of signatures, sent letters to the U.S. Postal Service, and even formally petitioned the Postal Regulatory Commission to overturn the decision.
Nothing helped. The main Venice post office shut its doors on June 15. Movie mogul Joel Silver is now negotiating to buy the building.
The closure of the Venice building is only the latest example of a move by the financially strapped USPS to shutter many of its historic properties. During the past year, the agency has listed 40 historic post offices for sale, including Berkeley’s Main Post Office on Allston Way, and sold about a dozen.
The sell-off of such a large number of historic properties has so alarmed the National Trust for Historic Preservation that in June it put historic post offices on its “2012 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places.”
“We are seeing the Berkeley situation played out all across the country,” said David Brown, executive vice-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. “What has happened is that postal service, in an attempt to deal with its operating deficits, has identified thousands of post offices to study for closure. Many of them are individually significant historic buildings. Their long-term preservation is of interest to the country.”
On Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council will consider a measure urging the U.S. Postal Service not to sell Main Post Office at 2000 Allston Way, which was constructed in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The council’s resolution, if it passes, will amplify the actions of dozens of Berkeley residents, historians, and preservationists who are determined to stop the transfer of a magnificent building from public to private hands.
But if the experiences of residents in Venice, Ukiah, Pinehurst, NC, Lakewood, NJ, Westport, CT, and Palm Beach, FL, are any indication, it will be very difficult to get the USPS to reconsider its decision. All of those communities fought – and failed – to stop the USPS from closing their historic post offices.
One of the main impediments to stopping the closure of Berkeley’s Main Post Office is the way the U.S. Postal Service has classified the transaction, according to Steven Hutkins, a professor of English at NYU who runs the website SavethePostOffice.com. He started the site after he heard the USPS might sell the historic post office in his Hudson Valley town.
Since the USPS intends to find another space in a downtown Berkeley, the process is categorized as “relocation,” rather than closure. This means there are fewer ways to slow down or stop the process, and very limited means to appeal the decision, said Hutkins. Regulations were modified in 2011 to streamline this procedure, which has the effect of reducing community safeguards.
“When they want to close a post office they have lots of hoops they have to go through,” said Hutkins. “They don’t have to do that with a relocation. Since all they are doing is moving, they are not depriving the community of a post office so they say there is no need for a discontinuance hearing.”
Even appealing to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the USPS, has not worked, as the Commission has repeatedly said it has no jurisdiction over relocations, said Hutkins. In October 2011, the Commission turned down a request by the city of Venice to hear arguments about why the USPS should not shutter its historic post office.
The USPS will hold a community meeting to discuss its plans for the Berkeley post office, but no time has yet been set for the meeting, said Augustine Ruiz, a spokesman for the USPS. Officially, the USPS is supposed to announce final plans for a facility within 30 days of a meeting, but does not always meet that goal.
The USPS held a community meeting in April with residents of La Jolla, a wealthy enclave in San Diego, but have not yet made a final determination on whether that community’s historic post office will close, said Joe LaCava, who sits on the steering committee of Save Our La Jolla Post Office. The lack of information is frustrating, but consistent with the secrecy of the post office, he said.
Ever since January, La Jolla residents have been trying to get specific information from the post office about the problems with its historic facility, said LaCava. So far, postal officials have been wary about meeting.
“That’s what’s been driving us nuts, that we can’t sit down and talk with them,” said LaCava. “Tell us what your issues are and we will see if we can help. For example, is the building in disrepair? What if we came in and fixed the building? The heating and ventilation system is apparent in bad shape. What if we come in and fix that for you. Will that allow you to stay? What if we found a tenant for the other half of the building you don’t need. Would that allow you to stay? Let’s talk about this and figure out if we can come up with something. They want to be very secretive about this and it’s very frustrating.”
Congress criticized USPS for the secrecy surrounding its process for closing thousands of rural post offices around the country. The USPS eventually became more transparent after Congressional pressure.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has met with officials from the USPS to try and force the agency to develop clear guidelines for the closure of historic post offices, said Brown, its executive vice-president. The Trust is not trying to stop the USPS from selling these buildings, since those decisions reflect the agency’s fiscal situation, but to make sure there is a successful transition of ownership that preserves the historical integrity of the buildings, he said.
USPS officials contend the agency works hard to preserve historic buildings and murals.
“In those instances where an historic property is to be sold, the Postal Service develops methods to protect the historic features of a property such as the use of preservation covenants which bind all future owners of the property,” a USPS spokesman, Mark Saunders, said in a statement to NJ.com.
There are many who do not believe the USPS has a true financial crisis necessitating the mass sell-off of historic buildings and the reduction of hours in communities around the country. While the USPS has reported $25 billion in losses in the last five years, in the first quarter of fiscal 2012, revenues exceeded expenses by $200 million, even after a drop in the amount of first class mail delivered. The USPS generates $60 billion in revenue a year. But because of a bill passed by Congress in 2006, the USPS must prepay health benefits for future retirees at a rate of $5.5 billion annually, placing a huge strain on the agency.
The USPS made those payments until 2010, but is expected to default on its 2011 $5.5 billion payment, due Aug. 1, and its $5.6 billion 2012 payment due in September.
The Senate approved a bill reducing the annual payment to $2.5 billion annually, stretched out over 40 years, but the House has not yet taken up the measure and is not likely to do so before the November election.
California critics of the sales are hoping that members of Congress will speak out against what they perceive as a sell-off of national treasures. They are worried California’s voice might be muted in that regard because Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum,
owns is chair of the board of CBRE , the commercial real estate company hired by the USPS to sell off its properties.
Op/Ed: Berkeley needs to wake up to loss of post office [7.16.12]
Second postal site in Berkeley for sale [07.09.12]
Postal service plans sale of Berkeley’s main post office [06.25.12]
A plea to save Park Station post office [04.07.11]
Sacramento Street post office to close [04.06.11]
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