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

By Dorothy Walker

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

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.

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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  • towards a public marketplace

    There is much to agree with in this opinion piece but a few points give me some concern.

    Converting large parts of the property to a marketplace has intuitive appeal. It’s proximity to an already successful farmer’s market is suggestive. It’s accessibility to the whole East Bay, via BART and AC Transit, has tremendous potential. It’s location close to many underserved residences is a good sign. The small retailer demand for affordable opportunities in busy business districts seems to be there to fill up the stalls.

    The idea needs careful study but it is easy to believe such a project could bring a great deal of much desired economic activity to downtown Berkeley.

    Here is where I would ask for caution and the greatest creativity we can muster: the structure of any potential private / public partnership can make a world of difference in who truly benefits from this project: the people and city of Berkeley? or a private landlord?

    If we regard this building as intrinsically a public building that properly performs a civic function; and if we envision a form of marketplace that would generate substantial rents; then the vast majority of those rents ought to be returned to the city itself in any private / public partnership to build and manage the envisioned marketplace. The city would be the market maker and so the city should get the rents on market participation.

    On the other hand, the economic development interests of the city might lay more in the possibility of a large marketplace with very affordable retail rents, very short-term leases, and high churn among retailers. In this scenario, the market maker would be playing a critical role for economic development but would more logically be operated on a break-even, not-for-profit basis.

    The city should look to the private sector for help financing a project like this. It might look to the non-profit private sector for help running a market place.

    The city should work to avoid any outcome that amounts to providing a public subsidy in support of private rent extraction from the Berkeley economy.

  • calfan

    A ferry building type use would be great. There’s no way the Post Office needs 57k square feet! All the mail is sorted off site anyways. Give them (the Post Office) a great retail presence in a newly renovated classic building and give small artisanal vendors a chance to show off what they do in classic environment. We need to keep/ build up independent business in Berkeley and reinvigorate Downtown and the transit areas. This is a great opportunity to do both.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I’m encouraged by BDA’s thoughtful approach of considering other cities’ examples. The phenomenon of public infrastructure outliving its original purpose is not new — many cities have armories that are no longer used, for example.

    I wish I believed that our council was capable of forging public-private ties, in a way that wasn’t dripping with contempt for the private parties.

  • Mrdrew3782

    The ferry building works so well because its main customers are either tourists or workers making the environment very comfortable. The main clientele of a public market at the post office location is going to be obnoxious high school kids and street people looking for a cheap meal.

    Not to say that we shouldn’t find a use for the building that benefits the city but just to keep in mind that downtown isn’t exactly a utopia at the moment.

  • Guest

    >If we regard this building as intrinsically a public building that properly performs a civic function

    Why? You start with a premise that not everyone may agree with, and fail to show why anyone should accept it.

  • Guest

    Hard to get tourists to come to your downtown area when your exciting new development proposal to change the neighborhood is a hobo hotel.

  • calfan

    I remember my father would park under the old Embarcadero freeway in front of the Ferry building because it was “free” and our car would get broken into every time. Point is, neighborhoods change and you can’t live in your past perception of what downtown is …

  • Rob Wrenn

    The Postal Service says it only wants 4,000 sq ft. The City should work to make sure that any developer who buys the property leases the front lobby/counter/mural area back to USPS with as much space behind that, and as much postal vehicle parking and access as needed. That would still leave 50,000+ sq ft, some of it on the second floor, where the USPS had offices. In doing a zoning overlay for the site, which is a good idea, the City Council should allow allow a sufficient range of uses to insure that the space not needed by USPS gets utilized. It’s fine to emphasize community-serving uses.

    I think a Ferry Building-style market should be allowed, but what about the second floor office space? Would that be part of such a market? I’m skeptical that the City could find anyone to develop such a market or that it would succeed, or that it would need as much space as is available.

    A hotel strikes me as improbable. You would convert offices to hotel rooms? What about all the interior space with no windows. The building is an attractive historical landmark, one of the nicer looking buildings in downtown, in my opinion. The City should not permit upward expansion of the building, which a hotel developer would probably want. There are better locations downtown for a hotel.

    As Dorothy says, the City should lay out the expectations for the site’s long term use. For me that means that the City Council should make clear that it will look favorably on development proposals that involve lease back of space to USPS and that preserve the building’s landmark exterior, and that will hopefully include uses that meet community needs.

  • Mrdrew3782

    past perception? The current perception is that its filled with obnoxious high school kids and homeless. The future perception is that its going to be filled with obnoxious high school kids and even more homeless.

  • Eleanore

    Thanks, Dorothy. Very helpful.

  • Margot Smith

    This building is historic, and should be maintained as a post office in the public sector. It was paid for by our taxes and houses New Deal art that is required to be accessed by the public. If the USPS managed the property as a good property owner, it would revamp the back part and rent it out and make a profit for the postal service. As it is proposed, the property would be sold, the commission going to Richard Blum, Diane Feinstein’s husband, and the postal service would pay a high rent for another facility downtown into eternity. The sale of our public legacy is THEFT.

  • premises and power

    It will come down to what leverage the city has over any potential deal and what we decide to do with it.

  • Guest

    I’ve known for some time that a boutique deal has been in the works. Has Ms. Walker just spilled the beans that Eddie Horton is the chosen one?

  • Guest

    That should have been “Orton”

  • Guest

    The city’s leverage is zero. The more they try to block the sale the less likely the postal service will be to work with them.

  • Guest

    So why do you keep voting for Feinstein?

  • Citizen

    THEFT? By whom, and from whom? It doesn’t belong to you, or to the public, it belongs to the USPS. The idea that the USPS should be required to maintain a white elephant because parts of it are a graceful public amenity is an absurdity. The USPS is a postal service; the preservation and management of real estate is part of its mission only to the extent that it furthers the collection, shipment, and delivery of mail. It is possible to protect what is worth protecting in this building, and make it accessible to the public, under other ownership: the landmark status of the building, and the city’s power to put conditions on its use, make that very simple thing to do.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The city’s leverage to block the sale is zero.

    The city’s leverage to determine the use the building will have after it is sold is significant, as this opinion piece says.

  • Name

    Thumbs up. Council is clueless.

  • Carol Suveda

    I like the idea of it being home to arts related businesses and organizations, as it’s central to Berkeley and near the other arts orgs in the Arts District. Maybe the Y could run art programs for all ages, make it a place where people can create and play together, a creative laboratory.