Op-Ed: Turn Berkeley post office into European-style public market

By John E. Parman

John E. Parman, who was born in Berkeley and lived here for 24 years, is the director of Black Country Tool Bank in the UK, which rebuilds neighborhoods by lending tools to volunteer projects. He researches the return on investment of social entrepreneurs in the private sector.

I live in Dudley, England’s second-largest town and a metropolitan borough, and I think this town has some lessons for Berkeley.

Dudley has 320,000 people and is two hours from London, 15 minutes from Birmingham. Dudley is a conurbation, a series of villages connected by roads dotted with industrial estates. Each village in the conurbation has its own high (or main) street, its own health clinic, its own public market.

The public markets here vary in what they offer. West Bromwich, a city with a Premier League football team about 12 minutes away, has a well-developed public market in an enclosed open air public space selling everything from desserts to barbecue.  The malls that have surrounded it are half-empty. Not enough retailers see a value in coming inside for a self-contained space and instead grow by adding tables in other markets.

In Dudley Town center, near to my home, we have a 12th century castle, a zoo, a living history museum, and the seat of the borough’s government. My local market is open seven days and week and offers fresh fish, meat, vegetables, confections, cleaning products, clothing, CDs and DVDs, pet food and cell phone accessories. Around it are butcher shops, florists, bakers, two pharmacies, a dozen charity shops, hair dressers, coffee shops, clothing stores, government buildings, sandwich shops and betting shops. The zoo’s lions, who roar from their hill across to mine most nights, are just a part of the attraction of living where I do.

The Borough has weather like San Francisco, and snow in the winter. It lost its town railway station in the 1960s and, although it has good bus links, it competes with a Westfield-owned mall for shoppers. My public market area has retained 11 family-owned butcher shops and JRR Tolkein’s grandson operates a free meditation parlor 200 feet away. There are 10,000 businesses in Dudley, including my own.

In 2007, one of the biggest stores on the the high street, Woolworth’s, shut down, a casualty of the subprime crash. With it gone, the town center lost its last department store and suddenly had more than 10,000 square feet of hard-to-fill open space.

But in Dudley, the Woolworth space had a second life, and that story may hold some lessons for Berkeley. A warehouse shop operator took over the building and leased it out to commercial tenants who set up stands selling a variety of goods. There are now more than 30 businesses in 5,000 square feet, including a butcher shop, nail salon, hardware store, jewelry shop, bakery, restaurant and more. Annual rent is on average £2,600 ($3,986) a year, plus utilities.

The Berkeley post office on Allston Way could be turned into something similar, with only minimal remodeling. Businesses could form a weatherproof Fourth Street in the tradition of a European public market just steps from Berkeley BART.

The reason Berkeleyans should consider this idea is because of the proximity to BART, not campus. It provides a secure one-stop shop for people who would otherwise miss farmers’ markets. It draws commerce off the high street but not out of the area. The reason Public Market in Emeryville failed was because it relied on drivers. In turn, that public market crowded out mom-and-pop places and replaced them what one Yelp reviewer calls a “pathetically horribly designed fractured art gallery with some restaurants attached.”

The post office should remain a public service building as a public market.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

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  • Ideation

    Perhaps Berkeleyside should sponsor a “re-use” contest for the building. Allow people to submit and document their ideas for a new use of the space, such as outlined in this editorial. And allow Berkeleyside readers to vote on the ideas.

    The idea outlined in this editorial sounds interesting, and it sounds very Berkeley’ish in that we have so many food creators here but they are spread out across town and often only available at farmers markets. Set up shop as described above and allow local vendors to set up stalls along with more established spaces like restaurants, galleries, shops.

    Or what about an indoor People’s Park for the wintertime???

    I wonder if the protesters would allow another use for the building or if they *only* want the space to forever and always be an actual post office?

  • DisGuested

    >Or what about an indoor People’s Park for the wintertime???

    Worst. Idea. Ever.

  • AlanTobey

    One successful foodie model is represented by the two Eataly markets in New York (http://www.mariobatali.com/restaurants_eataly.cfm) and Turin.

    While these occupy much larger spaces than our PO could provide, they have two elements that would contribute to success here: a focused theme centered on one popular cuisine with many locavore and imported expressions, and a single visionary management exerting curatorial control of that theme and its particular expressions. Far better, in my view, than just renting out small spaces to whoever shows up first, even if the latter would be more typical of our fair people’s republic..

    In short, this is best seen as a project for a visionary new owner to design and impose as something coherent — in the way that Fourth Street was from its establishment — rather than as a “democratic” but uncontrolled opportunity.

  • Rob Wrenn

    There are some indoor markets in the U.S., such as Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia and one in Los Angeles that are popular and presumably successful. I doubt something like this would succeed in downtown Berkeley which has not, in recent decades at least, supported any kind of food market, though Trader Joe’s, on the outer edge of downtown appears to be successful.

    A post office remains the best use for the site and I’m pleased that Mayor Bates has appealed the USPS decision to sell. The post office could easily lease out any space in the building that it doesn’t need. Some interior improvements and separate entrance(s) would be needed, but that would certainly be feasible, and new tenants would generate revenue for the USPS. There are offices upstairs and that space could be leased out. I’m pleased that Councilmember Arreguin, who represents downtown, has proposed a zoning overlay to limit how the property could be used if USPS’s shortsighted management continues with their plan to sell the building. If the sale goes forward, the City should favor a developer who will lease space back to USPS. A market, as described by Mr. Parman, would be acceptable and a good addition to downtown from my point of view, but, as noted, I doubt it would succeed, and the city’s priority should continue to be to keep the post office at that location.

  • The_Sharkey

    “A post office remains the best use for the site…”

    Can you show your work for this assertion?
    Any evidence you might have showing that, indeed, all other possible uses would be less profitable to the community?

  • Tizzielish

    I can’t speak for the protestors camping at the post office but I have supported the protest about the Berkeley post office in a few ways. Still, I speak here only for myself.

    I would happily allow almost any public use of the building as long as the building remained a publicly owned asset.

    For decades, conservatives have been pushing to privatize publicly paid for assets, like public housing (Berkeley no longer owns any public housing — the sold it to billionaire real estate investors and that is a bigger sin than selling the post office). The conservatives con us with baloney that the private market will do things better — the private market pays its workers unlivable wages, rarely give them any benefits and then the private owner catches all the rise in value and any income. This is just flat-out wrong to convert publicly funded assets into private ones and to allow the benefits of prime real estate to accrue to well connected private owners.

    A gal on the Berkeley Housing Authority board works for the real estate consulting firm that, big surprise, recommended BHA sell Berkele’s public housing.

    No big protests to protect that public asset, as if last-resort housing for the poorest of the poor is less important than the beautiful WPA-built post office.

    I digress, I know. Some snot will use the latest internet acronym and type tl:dr (too long didn’t read) as if we are all supopsed to write short corporate-like memos and emulate the for-profit market.

    I love the idea of using the Berkeley post ofifce as a public marketing but the main goal for me regarding the publicly funded and owned post office is to keep it publicly owned.

    Isn’t anyone else sick of seeing the cronies of politicians scooping up our resources and then getting to keep all the benefits of owning our resources? That is prime real estate and it belongs to the people.

  • Tizzielish

    The conservatives forced the post office to overfund future pension obligations as part of their effort to wipe out the post office. Selling off publicly funded jewel post offices is part of the same plan. The conservatives want to end the u.s. postal service — first demanding it operate as a for profit business but then hamstringing it by not allowing it to conduct itself privately. The post office should not need Congressional permission to end Saturday mail, not if business realities make that choice possible.

    And politicians in congress should dial back on the overfunding of future pensions. Without that overfunding of pensions, the post office would actually be doing okay right now.

    Sure, delivery of mail is changing but the conservatives know there will always be a need for mail — they want to privatize it and let the profits inure to private owners.

    If we created public structures to capture profit from our taxpayer-paid-for assets, and then let the public keep the profits — a simple concept — we might have the money we need to repair our streets, fund our schools, maintain other infrastructure without the only tool of taxation. Why not let the public benefit from the rise i value of their assets?

    The main value of the Berkeley post office is the real estate. I can almost hear the saliva dripping from the mouths of grasping developers would would build an apartment highrise wrapped around the old post office, nominally preserving the mural and the national historic register details but grabbing all the profits for private hands.

    That building is a jewel and it is worth much more than any real estate appraisal might say it is. It is our heritage; how do you value that? And how do you justify letting a semi-private business (the post office) grab out publicly funded assets like the post offices?

    Stop the horror.

  • Tizzielish

    I might be one of the few Berkeley liberals who would be just fine with the idea of UC Berkeley building dorms on People’s Park. UC owns it. It is off a bit of a cesspool, attracting some — only some — creepiness.

    People’s Park was also bought with taxpayer money, since taxpayers built UC but the fact that the university owns it and has been hamstrung about using it because of a hippie uprising a gagillions years ago — I’m ok with People’s Park being built on.

    The post office, a jewel on the National Register, not only built with taxpayer money but as a WPA project — the WPA was a majestic time in our history, one the House of REpresentaties in D.C. would never allow today (they don’t really allow anything but cutting for the poor and voting pointlessly against Obamacare, do they?).

    The WPA was a time when as a people we soared, we met the challenges of the Depression with grace and caring for one another. Let’s do that again somehow with the post office — and with other areas, why not?

    Anyone curious about who Tizzielish is — anyone who really cared could easily identify me with a couple googles — I’ll be at the task force on the homeless tonight! And, no, I am not a homeless person. I am an old school dyed-in-the-wool liberal. I reject the toned down word progressive.

  • fashionably early?

    ” I’ll be at the task force on the homeless tonight!”

    Tomorrow! (Aug. 15!)

  • Tizzielish

    The downtown post office happens to be ‘my’ post office. It is where I have go when I get a package, I’m not home and the postal carrier leaves me a slip to claim my prize. It is also where I go, somewhat anachronistically, to buy stamps. I love stamps. My grandpa was a mailman and my whole family collected stamps and took much pride in each new one. So I still sometmes buy them but more often than not, they get lost in the jumble of my home and I never use them. I hardly ever mail a thing, altho I still send birthday cards and, when I travel, post cards. It is much easier now that they sell ‘forever’ stamps. It was such a pain when the price would go up and my old stamps didn’t work.

    Anyway, the downtown post office is the one I repair to whenever I actually need to go into a post office: to mail a package, pick up a package, or buy stamps. This need arises less and less.

    BUT . . . sorry for being so longwinded — I get to be me in a free country, right? — the downtown post office is not efficient, it is dark, it is often poorly run. Until very recently, the clerks behind the counter were some of the most abusive customer service folks I have ever seen. Recently they have been more pleasant but, then again, the worst sour puss is gone, probably to a fat pension (and I hope she did get a pension, she must have put in many years to have grown so nasty on the job and gotten away with it!). Lately there has been a young, cheerful white male working at our post office. I always want to ask him how he got ‘in’. A h.s. boyfriend, who went on to be a mailman, like his dad, told me people only got jobs with the post office if they knew someone and I suspect most union-protected public service jobs are like that. sure anyone can apply, but to actually get the job, you need connects, Even with civil service gigs, the folks calling up the list of those who scored high have discretion — they can exclude you for all kinds of baloney they just make up so they can get down to the person with connects. So I long to ask the very cheerful white guy who fairly recently began working at the downtown post office”Who do you know?” And also I long to ask this question: “Does the idea of working in a post office doing boringly repetitive tasks for 30 years really seem like a good gig to you? Sure the money feels good to you now but man, repetitive mindless work gets old.”

    But what I really want to know is this: which already rich business person will buy our jewel of an old post office and convert it to a private asset that makes that person even richer? Who do they know? What ‘campaign donations’ (never a bribe!) did they have to make to steal that public asset from the public?

    And most of all: why the heck do we the people put up with this baloney?

  • Tizzielish

    I know. My above comment is tl:dr.

    I get to be me.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Are those the same grasping developers who subsidized your apartment?

    Don’t you have a law degree? Why aren’t you busting your hump like the rest of us instead of taking handouts and writing screeds against the people who are paying your way?

  • The_Sharkey

    Don’t you mean tie-dyed-in-the-wool?


  • Guest

    I love this idea! We had a public market like this when I lived in Canada, and it was well-used and a big draw for our 400,000 population town. As someone who works downtown, I could see myself running over there frequently to do marketing for dinner.

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is possible to do both, keep the post office retail service in the lobby and have a public market (or some other use) in the rest of the building.

    Any private developer must preserve the lobby, because it is a city landmark.

    I don’t think the public market could fit into the retail lobby. Can anyone imagine food stalls in the lobby? There would not be room to walk around them, and they would be isolated from the other food stalls in the rest of the building.

    It would be possible to convert the rest of the building into a public market, since it is no longer needed for sorting mail.

    We could keep the lobby as a retail post office while we remodel the rest of the building for some other use.

  • guest

    prepared food at the window
    market stalls in the back room
    boutique stores in the downstairs offices

    offices upstairs

  • think

    Ad hominem/feminam crap. If you want to argue with her ideas, fine, but don’t pollute a reasonable comment section with personal invective. Berkeleyside deserves better.

  • anonymous

    This is so unimaginative. Folks, we can’t keep buying and selling overpriced cups of coffee and tidbits of food to each other and continue calling this an economy. Anyway, an indoor market with quickly be overtaken by the refugee camp that is downtown, customers will eventually abandon it, and we’ll have an indoor Ashby flea market.

  • eriksf

    Great idea. There is a thriving farmers market just down the street every Saturday and it seems reasonable to conclude that a permanent selection of a few vendors that sell staples could do well within the Post Office space. Many American and European cities have multiple thriving indoor markets. There is no reason to conclude a city like Berkeley with such a strong food culture wouldn’t support this. Produce, bakery, wine shop, butcher, cheese shop, charcuterie, cafe, perfect!