Chances are slim of stopping sale of Berkeley post office

Downtown Berkeley Post Office. Photo: D.H. Parks

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.

Residents of La Jolla, a San Diego neighborhood, are rallying to stop the closure of their post office. Photo: Paul Hamilton

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.

July 6, 2012 letter from USPS telling Berkeley officials it will soon set up meeting

Related:
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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  • Charles_Siegel

     You make a good point, but I will add that the private sector also created buildings with beautiful, uplifting public spaces a century ago.  Obvious examples are New York’s Grand Central Station and old Penn Station. 

    I think there is a larger difference in the spirit of the time involved, not just the difference between the public and the private sector.

  • Charles_Siegel

     I have to disagree.  I think the design of the facade and the lobby where you buy stamps are uplifting.  On the other hand, waiting on line there definitely is not uplifting.

  • Anon

    FYI  Decrepitude is not limted to the USPS…

    UPDATE!
     
    The Council meeting and Post Office rally has been moved to next Tuesday, July 31st due to the elevator in Council Chambers not working!  So, there will be no meeting or action tonight.  See you next Tuesday.
     
    Thank you,
    Nicole
     

  • panoramia

     Blame the Postmaster and management for the foolish decision to lay off workers and maintain only a skeleton staff at all of the post offices in Berkeley, while running a deficit and needing postal sales. The lack of customer service & long wait time is a direct result of bad managerial decisions. Thus leaving only one clerk at the desk during peak hours / holidays etc. I am sure that with a reasonable amount of staff, both morale and productivity would skyrocket. Additionally to those who claim that UPS and FedEx are a  ” better ” alternative, consider their unacceptable rates. I regularly utilize the Post Office as I run an online store which does brisk business. Last week I went to mail an item which cost me $8 to mail via the post office including a box, I price compared and UPS would have charged me $15 for the same item. Federal control over the rates has kept them lower than their competitors who can charge literally what ever they want. Without the postal service, we who use that service will be in dire straits. I agree with Tim , we should try to FIX what isn’t working not just throw it away.

  • Biker 94703

    Don’t hold your breath.  The rest of Harold nee “Dharma” Way is off the tax-rolls for eternity.

  • Biker 94703

    Why would the USPS lease a space they currently own?  If the USPS needs revenue they should act like every other landlord in Berkeley and lease out the space that they own.

  • The Sharkey

    No, in the case of the Downtown Berkeley Post Office the bad attitude and insanely poor service is a direct result of lazy employees who don’t give a damn about doing their job well because they know they can’t be held accountable.

  • Awagele

    It should be sold along with all government “property”.  The proceeds should go towards reparations to the heirs of those who it was stolen from.  Threatening people with violence if they don’t give you their money is immoral, even if you call yourself “the state” and call it “taxes”.  Anyone who supports this immoral system should be ashamed.

  • The Sharkey

    I was referring more to the service than the setting.
    The building is beautiful, but the attitude of the current tenants is maddening.

  • Tim

    Don’t go away mad. How many billions of pieces of mail will we have to be down to before the idea of a postal service becomes obsolete? Surely we have far more mail today than we did when the Constitution was written. And if there’s no mail to deliver, then why are FedEx and UPS salivating at idea of the market share they stand to gain if the USPS can be brought down?

  • Tim

    Well, again, it seems you’re not looking at reality. The postal system is being dismantled NOW while the digital divide will not be closed for generations, if ever. This is a real social equality issue. Furthermore, there are billions of pieces of mail being delivered each week. They can’t all be digitized. Virtualization breeds this delusion that all reality will soon be virtual, that we can extrapolate from trends of the last 20 years and count on everyone gliding above the ground in virtual pods sustaining their lives via wirelessly transmitted symbols. I just think that’s weak logic and that the internet’s left you a more than a little starry-eyed.

  • Guest

    It’s a get rich quick sale lease back scam.
    California elected put a stop to it the last time CBRE
    tried to pull a fast one on the public:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/us/26bcbuildings.html?pagewanted=all

    The state treasurer Lockyer and Controller Chiang ought to have a look at the deal before it goes any further.
    Berkeley legislators may be out of their league if they want to stop the sale.

  • PostOfficeBuyer

    I am buying one of these in another city.  

    Ladies and Gentlemen, if you want to “protect” a building,  why not buy it?  I think its cowardly to press the community or local authority for your own intent and purposes…or fears…or whatever.Get your checkbook out of shut it :)

  • Robbed Citizen

    Spoken like a true self-serving anti-republican. We already own it; it would be stupid to buy something we already own. I suggest you get out that checkbook you like to flash around and buy a basic textbook in civics.

  • abolish the state

     What do you mean “we own it”?  Do you mean that you are threatened with violence if you don’t pay your share of the $5 Billion dollars per year that the socialist monopoly USPS is losing?  Or if they were to turn a profit you think they would send you your share of the profit?  You think you have any say in how it is used or not used?  These attributes are the opposite of “owning”.  Unless you still believe the joke that it’s “your” government?

  • Robbed Citizen

    We owned it, bought with our tax dollars and a hell of a lot of labor, since the time of that “socialist monopolist” Ben Franklin, until self-serving privateers began stealing it. Same for our whole government. Your anarchy, your utopian idea of some kindergarten free-for-all, your determination to use the commonwealth without contributing to it, and your alternative “road to serfdom” that is privatization are not the answer. They are the problem. Take a pause from zombie ideology and spend a few minutes with the reality of history:
    http://www.savethepostoffice.com/invisible-hands-businessmen%E2%80%99s-campaign-dismantle-post-office
    .

  • abolish the state

     This system was created by the self-serving privateers in order for them to steal from this collective “we” you keep referring to.  This is what Hamilton and his banking elite partners wanted.  I’m sorry you can’t see this, but it’s hard to blame you considering you likely were indoctrinated in their 13-year youth training blocs.  Where the state’s teachers taught us the state’s version of its self in all it’s glory.

    My anarchy is where everyone is equal, instead of this system where the privileged elite control most of the wealth and are unaccountable to the laws they inflict on the rest of us.  I would call your “reality” utopian where you allow a small group of people to own and control you, and you trust them to do the right thing no matter how many times they betray and abuse you.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The arguments from the two opposite sides of the political spectrum – the anarchists versus the road-to-serfdom privatizers – remind me of the saying of the nineteenth-century social critic Thomas Carlyle:

    Capitalism is anarchism with a constable.

  • Charles_Siegel

     I agree with you on that.  I once told one of the clerks there that you would never find such rudeness in a store, only in the post office.

    I expect we will have the same rude clerks in any retail location that they choose downtown.

  • Robbed Citizen

     One of my favorite quotes too. Fact is, both ends are anarchists. One just has a constable.

  • Guest

    You can thank Congress for making the Post Office pay now for benefits for retirees who haven’t been born yet.

  • Guest

    It was awfully convenient how her husband profited from her vote for the Iraq war. I’ll be abstaining in the Senate race. 

  • attrctd2air

    What taxes? Our taxes don’t pay for the post office.