USPS hears vocal opposition to sale of downtown building

So many people turned out on Tuesday Feb. 26 to meet with USPS over the potential sale of the downtown post office building that there was overflow outside the Berkeley City Council Chamber and in front of City Hall. Photo: Tracey Taylor

On Tuesday, the US Post Office listened to around 50 Berkeley residents tell them why they did not want the historic downtown Berkeley post office building to be put up for sale. They witnessed a 200-strong rally with singing and chanting, and were subjected to not a litte heckling and jibes.

Benjamin Franklin made an appearance in the guise of local actor Josh Kornbluth. (“Welcome to Berkeley,” he said. “I think you’ll find Berkeley will work with you and the founding fathers will be behind you.”) Mayor Tom Bates received a rousing round of applause when he said he and the Council — who, in a rare show of unanimity, are agreed on this issue — would fight to prevent a sale. And the two Post Office staffers who had called the public meeting as per protocol outlined, with stark numbers, just how dire the financial situation is for USPS nationally, and why the public organization believes it makes sense to divest itself of a building only a fraction of which is now used for postal services.

Speaking for USPS, Augustine Ruiz and Diana Alvarado said the organization’s ideal scenario would be to stay at the current location, renting space from new owners.

Berkeley resident Moni Law spoke of the post office’s historic role in employing African Americans. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“Our preference is to lease back 4,000 sq ft in the existing building,” Alvarado said, citing examples of where this had been done, such as Sausalito. She also stressed that Berkeley has seven post office locations and USPS is not proposing to close any of them. However the organization, she said, is “no longer able to maintain [the downtown Post Office building] the way it should be maintained worthy of its heritage.”

The Renaissance-style building at 2000 Allston Way has 57,200 sq ft, but, since the mail sorting operations were moved to the USPS’s 8th Street facility, the property, like many post offices around the country, is under-utilized. Should the proposal to sell go ahead, the Post Office said it will look for replacement space in downtown Berkeley “as close to existing post office as possible.”

Ruiz and Alvarado made a presentation that highlighted the nature of the organization’s predicament. The pressures are fourfold: from high labor costs, the post office’s universal service obligation, drops in mail volume, and price competition. Total mail volume has declined 27% since 2006 and USPS had a $15.9 billion net loss in 2012. They explained that the organization would have made a $100 million profit had it not been for the Congress-mandated Retiree Health Benefits funding. A 2006 law requires the USPS to fund fully a 75-year liability over a 10-year period, which costs the organization over $5.5 billion a year (that pre-funding includes benefits for employees who aren’t even born yet).

Read the full presentation given by USPS.

In the public hearing, many spoke of how much they appreciated the post office service generally; some spoke specifically of using PO boxes on Allston Way for decades and the joy of writing and receiving letters. Local resident Moni Law was one of several who spoke of post office’s role in being a gateway to middle class life for African Americans. “It’s ironic that we are meeting on the last two days of Black History month to discuss this,” she said. “Do not slash jobs.”

Photo 3

Diana Alvarado of USPS, actor Josh Kornbluth dressed as Benjamin Franklin, and Augustine Ruiz, also of USPS, at the Berkeley meeting to discuss the sale of the downtown post office on Feb. 26. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The historic and architectural significance of the building was highlighted by many, including the National New Deal Preservation Association, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Committee, the National Trust, and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. (Read testimony presented by Harvey Smith of the National New Deal Preservation Association.)

The consensus among those who participated was that the building should remain public property. Reading a statement, former mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick said: “Post offices should stay in public domain — the public paid for them, the public owns them.”

A representative for Congresswoman Barbara Lee read a statement in which Lee urged the post office to “immediately abandon plans to close this local treasure.”

Both Bates and Councilman Jesse Arreguín, whose district encompasses downtown, said they would work with USPS to find alternative uses for 2000 Allston Way. “We are an innovative and creative community — we will work with you to find ways to use the building,” Bates said. “There should be ways to generate income from that building.”

Arreguín said the building at 2000 Allston Way was an anchor to downtown and part of Berkeley’s “identity and soul.” He said he understood USPS needed $500,000 in annual revenues to keep the building and urged the organization to consider leasing large parts of it.

Photo 6

Around 200 people held a rally outside old City Hall ahead of the meeting with USPS to protest the sale of 2000 Allston Way. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Tuesday’s meeting is followed by a 15-day written comment period which ends on March 13. A record of the public hearing will now be submitted to Washington and a decision will be made regarding a potential sale. Ruiz said it was difficult to provide a timeline.

The Post Office has started due diligence on a potential sale, including conducting an appraisal. They have not yet assigned a local broker, although the organization is working more broadly with Richard Blum, chair of the board of  CBRE , the commercial real estate company hired by the USPS to sell off its properties. Blum is married to Senator Diane Feinstein, and his involvement was criticized by many at Tuesday’s meeting.

While most buildings that the post office wants to sell do eventually get sold, Alvarado, answering a question from a community member, mentioned two examples where USPS did not go through with sale after listening to public comment: Huntington Beach and Menlo Park.

Post Office public hearing to focus on Berkeley sale plan [02.26.13]
Berkeley discusses future of main post office [02.13.12]
Protesters take Save Post Office demo to San Francisco [12.05.12]
Rally held to protest sale of Berkeley’s main post office [11.15.12]
Developer eyes Berkeley’s historic post office [08.01.12]
Chances are slim of stopping sale of Berkeley’s post office [07.23.12]
Postal Service plans sale of Berkeley’s main post office [06.25.12]

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  • EricPanzer

    I have, of course, made clear that I think this reaction is misplaced and overblown. Irrespective of how one feels about this issue, however, it seems pretty clear from the attendance at these rallies and meetings that there is a stark generational divide here–if not in position, at least in enthusiasm.

    Trying to put my perspective aside, I don’t think it’s necessarily ageist to note that this issue doesn’t appear to have inspired much concern or activism among young families, young professionals, students, or people under the age of 50 in general. This isn’t to say that is universally true, nor does it constitute evidence that one side is “right” or “wrong,” but I do think it shows who’s exerting influence upon the City Council’s position regarding this issue. Not that such information is likely to ever be available, but I’d be curious to see how this issue polls among Berkeley’s electorate at large.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Meanwhile, the State Controller’s report shows that we are overpaying and overstaffed in City departments. Where’s the outrage and costume drama about that?

    What I would give for a Council that would focus on that problem and set aside these interminable circuses.

    @Berkeleyside — how about some hardball coverage of that issue? Please?

  • The_Sharkey

    It really seems like almost all the opposition of this sale is coming from folks who are nostalgic about the idea of a post office rather than this specific location, and for whom e-mail is “new” technology.

    The building is pretty, and I hope it stays, but the Downtown Berkeley Post Office is far and away the worst of the dozens of Post Offices I have used in California.

  • Tizzielish

    Privatizing taxpayer funded assets that could be used to generate income in perpetuity for the commons, or for the taxpayers who initially created the asset, is immoral.

    Congress has forced the USPS to pre-funded pension liabilities, even for employees NOT YET BORN as a cycnical, deliberate ploy to accerlate the privatization of the post office. Rich corporate donors will end up buying publicly-funded assets that belong to the people and rich corporate donors will privatize the profit.

    When will we stop such insanity?

    Selling our jewel of a post office for rwhat will likely be a cheap deal for the well connected buyer is comparable to selling oil leases too cheaply and selling off many of our public assets, such as mineral deposits in national parks, way way way too cheaply.

    we could use our publicly owned assets to make money for the whole. this insanity that private is always better is like a religion, a belief with no foundation in fact or reality . but which neo con wingnuts revere like the concept if GOD HERSELF.

    I hopes Bates and Arrequin succeed in finding people to rent the parts of the building the post office does not use. If we could keep the front of the post office, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to build an apartment or condo tower around the old glory post office, retaining the historical landmark features and buiding over the unused loading docks, the massive amount of warehouse/sorting space that is no longer used. Lease the land in perpetuity, generating income to the taxpayers in perpetuity instead of sellling it off to private owners — that keeps the asset and benefits of the assset in public hands where it belongs.

  • Tizzielish

    I don’t really care too much if the post office is sold in terms of its historical, cultural or community significance. My main concern is that it seems immoral to sell off public assets that could be converted into income-generating assets to feed the public’s needs. If the land has value, the value should inure to the taxpayers, not some rich private well-connected private buyer.

  • Mfox327

    That is one super gray audience. Clearly this is a group of folks stuck in the past.

  • Biker 94703

    Those of us under retirement age are too busy running businesses and raising families to pop out at 6pm on a Tuesday.

    And students? As temporary residents (and rather busy ones at that), students don’t care about much other than their studies. No big surprise there.

  • Biker 94703

    Changing the location won’t improve the service. And for the life of me I can’t understand why you’re an advocate for selling _your_ building in order to put a few dollars into the retirement fund of the employees who provide you with crappy service!

  • guest

    What an ageist response! Just because these folks appear older doesn’t mean they are stuck in the past. It could be these people feel strongly about an a quasi government entity selling off public assets that may or may not end up owned by private entities. The whole issue of the USPS not being financially viable has been orchestrated by Congress demands that the USPS pre-fund pension liabilities for future employees who are not yet hired and may in fact not even be alive yet as Tizzielish pointed out.

    I agree that the Downtown post office is horribly run but selling off the building won’t do anything to change that. Perhaps if the USPS fixed the poor worker morale situation, they could generate more income so they wouldn’t be in such a terrible financial situation. I would gladly use the USPS more often to ship packages if I didn’t have to sacrifice more than my lunch hour to accomplish it.

  • Cassandra

    The only reason the USPS is in trouble is because of the health benefit pre-funding requirement of the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act”, enacted by Congress and the Bush Administration in 2006. Here is what the USPS is/has been required to pay into the fund each year over 10 years:

    $5.4 billion in 2007
    $5.4 billion in 2008
    $5.4 billion in 2009
    $5.5 billion in 2010
    $5.5 billion in 2011
    $5.6 billion in 2012
    $5.6 billion in 2013
    $5.7 billion in 2014
    $5.7 billion in 2015
    $5.8 billion in 2016

    Without this insane requirement, the USPS would have been profitable over these years.

  • Just Asking

    Don’t suppose it could be because some young people, like Eric for example, Put tend to be both poorly informed and self-centered? Put it on the ballot, Eric, and see how it plays.

  • The_Sharkey

    1.) It’s not my building. I don’t get any personal benefit from it, nor do I have any responsibility for it, nor can I put it to my own use. The “It belongs to all of us!!!” argument is a bit of a canard.

    2.) The USPS can barely take care of their current duties. Making them landlords and property managers on top of that is begging for a disaster.

    3.) If they don’t do it by selling the building I’ll just be paying for those retirement funds through taxes so it’s kind of a wash.

    4.) Rather than trying to forestall the inevitable, I think the City Council should be using this proposed sale to try to fight to get a really awesome developer like Oakland’s McMenamins to take over the space and turn it into something that would preserve the history and character of the building and be a draw for tourists and locals alike.

  • Andrew

    I am 45 and couldn’t care less. But then again, I’m usually looking forward, not backward. On to new things. The building will find a new purpose… even buildings evolve.

    But I’ll add that as someone relatively new to Berkeley (14 years) it has become clear to me that there is a population here in “progressive” Berkeley that does not want to move on. Nice people, well meaning, but seemingly against change in many forms. It also seems to me that the average age in Berkeley is quite high. At my block’s earthquake preparedness meeting I was the youngest by about 20 years. Even at middle age I seem to reflect the “young generation” on my block.

  • The_Sharkey

    Oregon’s McMenamins.
    Not Oakland’s McMenamins.

  • The_Sharkey

    The problems with the USPS workers have nothing to do with morale, and everything to do with the fact that bad workers don’t get fired for incompetence.

    In this economy, with the current levels of unemployment, anyone who can’t perform the simple task of being a window clerk for the Post Office efficiently and with a good attitude should be fired immediately. Any one of those jobs would easily get hundreds of applications from hopefuls who would be willing to do better work for less money.

  • Japhy Writer

    I am a young professional under 30 who attended the end of the meeting, and I do agree that it was a largely older, white population. A lot of the public comment that I heard was well-meaning but misplaced nostalgia for the idea of a post office, desperate calls for people to start using physical mail again, and cringe-worthy suggestions for the post office to save money (“stop sending junk mail!” “advertise the PO boxes!” “make junk mail into cute characters like the Geico gecko and maybe they’ll be collectibles!”).

    But there were also a number of cogent arguments against the sale of the post office and the privatization of public assets. I think the “planned catastrophe” of the Bush administration’s Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act is also a compelling point, but admittedly I haven’t fully researched it yet. I entered the meeting with no strong feelings either way, and left wondering: if Berkeley citizens (albeit many generations ago) paid for the building, why should the post office get to sell it to a private developer, presumably to make up for incomprehensible pension obligations? I do think that technological change is rapidly changing the post office’s role in our daily lives, but there has to be some use for the building that will generate profit, allow the post office to continue existing operations, and still serve its purpose as a piece of public art and an anchor of the downtown community.

    To me, the commenters complaining about the service at the post office sound just like the nostalgic people at the mic two nights ago: the individual experiences are certainly valid, but there’s also a larger issue here of community ownership and private interests.

  • Wgrove

    I am 37 and a professional artists & crafts-person. I use the US postal system in order to ship my artwork to customers who make purchases through the internet. While I could use other private shipping companies, they don’t all offer affordable shipping rates to _all_ locations in the USA. Also, for many of the purchases I make online, I have items shipped to me by USPS. I am not old, nor outdated and I depend on the USPS regularly for my 21st century digitized lifestyle. I am sure there are other small business owners who depend on the services of the USPS. I do not want the services of the US postal system dismantled and privatized.

  • Guest

    Perhaps it not all the fault of the line staff? Perhaps there’s some really messed up management that’s partly to lame for the poor service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been waiting for an hour for service and the supervisor pops out to glare at her staff and the customers but not do a thing to help. She just stared at everyone then stormed back to her back office. It could be that new supervisors could change the whole dynamic.

  • EarlyMorningCoffee

    The Downtown P.O. is the worst one I have ever been in. Ever. Re-manage the way that place is run, then maybe I would be inclined to agree that the place should stay open as a post office. I find myself in situations where I leave to go to other, less pretty post offices, and get the job done (I patronize the post office often)… If I want a museum, I’ll go to one.

  • The_Sharkey

    I hate sending clicks to a business as dirty as Yelp, but you don’t get this many one-star reviews without being an awful, awful place.

  • The_Sharkey

    It is all the fault of the front staff, because I’ve been in the back quite a few times and the back staff seem to be much better and friendlier employees.

  • The_Sharkey

    I’ve had so many bad experience at the downtown office that I don’t go there any more unless I have a bunch of packages to drop off in the back.

    The front window staff is among the rudest, slowest, and least-efficient customer service employees I’ve ever encountered. I usually go to the office on San Pablo and find them to be much better at their jobs and with far less attitude.

  • Biker 94703

    All staff problems are management problems.

    It is easy to see what it would take to “fix” the downtown post-office service problem: add staff. Probably that also means cutting salaries and benefits, and hiring part-time workers to fill peak seasons and hours.

  • bgal4

    and hiring more for unspecified tasks

  • The_Sharkey

    No, all staff problems aren’t management problems.
    Even the best management can’t do much with lazy, rude employees who know they can’t be fired.

    And the downtown post office doesn’t need more staff, it just needs staff that are competent and give a damn about doing a good job.