Opinion

Op-Ed: City needs to be creative to ensure good use of post office

Like many Berkeley residents, I have been following with great interest and concern the fate of our downtown Berkeley Post Office. It is a tragic commentary on the accelerating impoverishment of the public sector in our country that a public building constructed one hundred years ago with public money to serve community needs is likely to be sold to the highest bidder.

Our centrally located downtown post office serves the rapidly increasing numbers of businesses and residents in the downtown, as well as all of us throughout Berkeley. Retaining the retail, public contact part of the post office downtown is critical. And retaining this historic public building in public ownership and public use is highly desirable. But there are four realities to address:

  • Our historic post office of about 57,000 sq ft occupies more than an acre. Most of the building is already vacant. The Postal Service has issued a notice of determination that it intends to proceed with the sale of the building. At this time no public entity has expressed interest, and it is likely that a private party may purchase the building.
  • The Postal Service has stated that it could include a sale-leaseback in a sales transaction that would allow the retail services to remain in place. This function would use less than 10% of the building.
  • Making major parts of the building available for any kind of public use will require significant investments for fire protection, disabled access, toilet facilities, etc. Some kind of public/private partnership may be needed to achieve the investment necessary to reuse the building for public-serving activities. No public monies for such investments have been identified, although there are federal tax credits available to a private owner if a reuse conforms to the standards for historic preservation.
  • The downtown Berkeley post office is a designated local landmark and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. This landmark status requires the conservation of the structure. The Postal Service itself may require it as condition of the sale.

This status effectively prevents the removal of the building, although it is possible that additions to the building could be accomplished that would meet historic standards. Preservation may deter interest by some private developers and lower the building’s price; however it does nothing to guarantee reuse of the building in the public interest. It may give an advantage to a purchaser who intends only a low-intensity use that does not require much investment.

I understand that Mangalam Centers and Dharma College, the Buddhist organizations that own the buildings in the rest of the block, are interested in purchasing the post office to create a campus of the entire block. They envision the space between the buildings as public open space and have said they would like to retain the retail functions of the post office. To my knowledge they have not stated publicly how they propose to use the most of the building.

While they have beautifully restored the adjoining former Elks Club and Armstrong College buildings, the number of people and activities in these buildings appears quite low and they are mostly not open to the public. Unless the Buddhist organizations envision a much more intensive kind of use than their current practice, their ownership of the post office building would not serve the broad public interest in the reuse of this historic landmark in its prime location, nor would it create many jobs, produce revenue to the city, or help revitalize the downtown.

The City Council continues to oppose the sale of the building, which is understandable, but the city needs a position regarding possible future uses of the building, and should be initiating negotiations with the Postal Service to have them impose conditions on the reuse of the building that would support feasible and desired new uses.

The Planning Commission is considering city zoning changes that would greatly restrict how the post office and all the other buildings in the Civic Center district could be used. In the absence of any interest by any public institution or agency in acquiring/reusing the building, the city must be open to public/private partnerships or creative uses by the private sector that will make the building a major contributor to the vitality of our downtown.  The least desirable outcome of the current situation is the purchase and use of the building for mostly private purposes.

The City Council must act immediately to establish criteria for any use of the building so that any prospective buyer will understand the need to work with the City in the public interest, and the Postal Service will be aware of the city’s position on the future use of the building.

The Council reuse criteria must ensure that this historic building is a major contributor to the social and economic vitality of downtown. The criteria should support uses that create jobs and economic activity and uses that attract a broad cross-section of our community, with many people coming and going on a daily basis and contributing positively to the pedestrian environment. The criteria should include how the building might be modified or added to accommodate new uses while preserving the historic exterior and as much of the interior of the building as feasible. These criteria must assume that a private party may be the purchaser and provide direction for private investment to serve the public good.

For example, one criterion that might be achieved by an easement negotiated with the Postal Service, could be a requirement that the building be accessible to the public at least 40 hours a week so the building, and any additions, would be an active space with the entire ground floor open to public use and the entire building open for public access. These public-serving uses might include the retail Post Office, a conference center, possibly with a hotel, a community art center, a food hall, retail specialty shops, a museum, performance spaces, an entertainment complex, a Berkeley equivalent of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, or an arts market place as developer Eddie Orton has proposed.

Orton has expressed interest in retaining the retail function of the Postal Service along with a new center for producing, storing, wholesaling and retailing of art, plus resources for multi-media arts.  This concept would build upon the location near the Arts District and the public attraction of the new UC Berkeley Art Museum now under construction. An arts marketplace in much of the existing space might be coupled with an addition to house a museum or conference center.

The best uses of this beautiful building and its prime location may be some combination of uses that would assure that large numbers of people come to our downtown and are in and out of the building constantly.

Berkeley Design Advocates (BDA), a long-time local group working to achieve good design and development — and the authors of the recent and highly commended study of Telegraph Avenue — are studying possible new uses for our historic post office.  As part of that study, BDA is preparing an exhibit of successful reuses of former post offices and other historic buildings in other cities. BDA wants to give you and interested citizens some ideas about how our post office can have a new life. This exhibit will be open for public viewing in late September in the lobby of the downtown Wells Fargo Building.

The most important thing now is for the Council to have a big vision for how reuse of this site can contribute to the goals of our Downtown Plan, and lay out for the Postal Service and prospective buyers the expectations of the city for its long term use.

The city can turn a potential tragedy into an enormous opportunity for our downtown.

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Dorothy Walker is a former member of Berkeley's Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.