Developer eyes Berkeley’s historic post office

The interior of the Main Post Office at 2000 Allston Way. It is landmarked on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: Charlotte Wayne.

While the City Council unanimously passed a declaration Tuesday night asking the United States Postal Service not to sell Berkeley’s Main Post Office, an award-winning developer who specializes in historic properties says he is interested in buying the building on Allston Way.

Eddie Orton, whose remodel of the historic Ford Plant in Richmond won the American Institute of Architects’ Honor Award for Excellence in Architecture, said the structure at 2000 Allston Way “is a beauty.”

“I love that building,” said Orton, who also redeveloped the Flint Ink building on Gilman, along with a number of other structures in Berkeley. “It’s beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to develop it? It’s a great building. It’s gorgeous.”

Orton said he heard there was “a lot of interest” in the post office. The USPS has announced the building is for sale, but the real estate company it hired, CBRE, has not yet listed it on the market. At last night’s City Council meeting, however, Mayor Tom Bates’ chief of staff, Judy Iglehart, maintained, “The building is not for sale. There’s a process in place. They would like to sell it, but it is not at this time for sale.”


One non-profit that had been rumored to be interested in the post office has apparently backed away, according to a city official who asked not to be named. The YMCA, located directly across the street from the post office, looked hard at the site but decided against pursuing it because a rear addition added in the 1930s cannot be altered significantly, according to the official.

The Nyingma Institute, an umbrella organization for the almost dozen non-profits founded by the Tibetan Buddhist lama Tarthang Tulku, has also backed off looking at the building, according to the official. Jack Petranker, the director of the Mangalam Research Center, which is next door to the post office, said since the building was not yet for sale, all rumors about Nyingma’s interest were mere speculation.

The city of Berkeley was officially informed in late June that the 1914 post office building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would be sold. However, rumors about its upcoming sale had been circulating for months, which is why the YMCA took a look at it, according to the official.

In fact, a maintenance worker at the post office told Berkeleyside that he had seen a number of people from the YMCA tour the building in the last few months. Fran Galletti, the CEO of the YMCA of the Central East Bay, did not return phone calls on the matter.

Plaque outside Berkeley’s downtown Berkeley Post Office. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

Many city officials and residents are opposed to the USPS’ plan, which involves selling the Allston Way property and moving retail operations to a smaller facility somewhere else in downtown Berkeley. Dozens of people protested against the sale in a demonstration last Tuesday, with organizer Gray Brechin likening the sale of the Berkeley post office – and many similar historic post offices around the country – to a 19th century land grab.

But the chances of stopping the sale seem slim if the experiences of other communities are an example. Residents around the state, from Venice, to La Jolla, to Modesto, to Palo Alto and elsewhere have tried to prevent the sale of their historic post offices, with little effect. The procedures that exist to make closing post offices subject to greater review do not apply when, as USPS insists is the case for Berkeley, a post office is being moved in a neighborhood rather than closed.

Orton has developed at least three Berkeley properties, including one at 2850 Seventh Street, called Temescal, according to his website. The land holds 11 buildings. Orton also bought and later sold 2855 Telegraph Avenue, a 74,000 sq ft, six-story office building. Orton purchased the Flint Ink building, a 133,070 sq ft building on 4.78 acres in West Berkeley, in September 2009.

Orton transformed the abandoned Ford Plant into a state of the art office building in Richmond. His adaption of the historic structure – which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places – has been widely praised.

Since the Main Post Office is also on the Register, anyone who develops it must be careful to preserve its historic elements, according to Eric Angstadt, Berkeley’s planning director. While someone may be able to renovate the rear addition added in the 1930s – and possibly even add on one story – he or she could not severely alter the building without going through a laborious and difficult review process. The front lobby and historic murals are also protected, he said.

“Any alteration is going to have to go through an extensive review,” said Angstadt.

Orton predicted it might be a while before the Berkeley post office was actually sold, given the USPS’ “difficult history of selling real estate.” He pointed out how the agency had a tough time selling its Chicago and San Diego facilities. The 3 million sq ft facility in Chicago was on the market for 10 years without a buyer. It was finally auctioned off to a British developer. The USPS has had more success with smaller properties, such as the historic post office in Venice, Calif. Film executive Joel Silver is in negotiations to buy that property, even though local residents rallied to try and prevent the sale.

Related:
Dozens rally to save historic post office [07-25-12]
Chances are slim of saving Berkeley post office
[07.23.12]
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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