Federal report calls to stop sale of Berkeley post office

Main Post Office at Allston Way by DH Parks

A new report calls for the suspension of the sale of Berkeley’s main Post Office at 2000 Allston Way. Photo: Daniel Parks

Local officials and preservationists are heartened by a new report that calls for the United States Postal Service to suspend the closing and sale of all historic post offices, including the Main Post Office at 2000 Allston Way.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress, and other federal officials on how to preserve the nation’s historic resources, issued a critical report Thursday. It said the USPS had not been following the law when it ordered that dozens of historic post offices – often the core of communities – be shuttered and sold.

Specifically, the USPS may not have been fully meeting the guidelines for sale required in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), according to the report. The section mandates that federal agencies consider the effect of any sale and look for ways to lessen or avoid adverse risks.

“Nationwide, the USPS gives no special consideration in the disposal decision-making process to the historic significance of a post office when determining if the facility is a viable candidate for relocation or cessation of services and disposal,” concludes the report, titled Preserving Historic Post Offices: A Report to Congress. “This is a critical concern as it is far preferable to have buildings that were historically designed for public uses remain publically accessible. “

The ACHP also criticized the USPS for its lack of transparency and for ignoring the “historic values of these iconic buildings.” If the process of selling these historic properties is not immediately revamped, communities will be harmed, according to the report.

ACHP prepared the report after Rep. Barbara Lee mandated it as part of a provision of the 2014 Congressional Appropriations bill. One of ACHP’s jobs is to help federal agencies comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and be responsible stewards of the nation’s historic resources.

Local officials who have been battling the sale of the post office welcomed the news.

“This is one more step forward in a growing national moment to save our Post Offices and stop the sale and privatization of a valuable national resource that benefits everyone,” said Senator Loni Hancock in a press release.

About 100 people gathered outside the main Berkeley post office in 2012 to protests its planned sale. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

A 2012 protest outside Berkeley’s main Post Office over its planned sale — one of many. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

A spokeswoman for the USPS said on April 21 that “the report is currently being reviewed.” The USPS might have a comment later in the month, said Debbie Brady. (See new statement below.)

The USPS announced it intended to sell the historic post office on Allston Way in the summer of 2012 as part of a restructuring and downsizing to compensate for declining revenues. The announcement prompted protests and sit-ins by preservationists and citizens concerned about the loss of such an iconic structure with its WPA Depression-era murals to private parties.

The Berkeley City Council passed a resolution condemning the sale of the historic Allston Way building. The California Legislature also passed a bill calling on Congress to keep Berkeley and other historic post offices from being sold, as well as a bill calling on Congress to support the Postal Protection Act of 2013, which repeals the requirement that the USPS pre-fund pension and health benefits for 75 years. Many believe the pressure to pre-fund billions of dollars in pension costs has been one of the forces prompting the USPS to sell off its prime real estate. Hancock sponsored both bills.

The report found that the USPS was not always transparent about its sales process, that it failed to include interested parties in discussions about the sale of historic properties, and that is overused “preservation covenants” to determine that the sales would have “no adverse effect,” on communities. That has meant that the USPS had determined that the sale of 14 historic post offices would not greatly impact their communities, according to the report.

One example of the USPS’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to identify Berkeley as an interested stakeholder is that the city has not seen any of the documents that are routinely made available to prospective buyers, said Antonio Rossmann, a private land use attorney hired by Berkeley to help fight the sale. The city has regularly asked for a report on the condition of the structure, but has never received one.

Berkeley does not know how many people or companies are interested in purchasing the building either, said Rossmann. Officials heard a rumor that seven different groups had expressed interest, but some had been disqualified. The USPS has not set a price for the structure and is allowing those interested to name their own price, he said.

Much to Berkeley’s satisfaction, the report agrees with the argument put forth by Rossmann at a March 11 meeting before the ACHP at the Oakland federal building. Rossmann contended that it is not only the architecture of a building that should be protected, but its continued historic uses.

“That is a historic advance in the federal council’s position,” said Rossmann.

“It is not just that we want to save the building; we want to save its use, as well,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “We want this building to remain a U.S. Post Office and a central part of the Berkeley downtown community.”

Part of the problem with the sales is that the postal service appears uncertain whether the law requires it to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act or its compliance is voluntary, according to the report. This may stem from the fact that the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act exempted the USPS from federal laws “dealing with public or federal contracts, property, works, officers, employees, budgets, or funds,” according to the report.

The report calls for USPS to unequivocally comply with NHPA.

Some of the report’s conclusions include:

  •  The proposed disposal of historic postal facilities must first be subject to a historic preservation review, in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
  • The USPS should suspend any further actions to relocate services out of historic postal facilities and dispose of these historic facilities until such time as it fully implements the recommendations of this report.
  • If the USPS fails to suspend such actions, the ACHP recommends that Congress direct the USPS to suspend all relocation of service decisions and disposal actions for postal facilities that are listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places until such time as the USPS fully implements the recommendations of this report directed to it.
  • The USPS should evaluate the viability of leasing historic properties, or portions thereof, as an alternative to disposal.

It is still unclear what effect the report will have on the USPS’s sales. The report is not legally binding on the USPS, but is binding as a practical matter, said Rossmann. If the USPS does not respond to the report and voluntarily change the way it handles its sales of historic properties, they will be challenged in court, he said.

“The postal service doesn’t have to listen to the Advisory Council but they would have to listen to a federal judge.”

But the USPS, which knew the report had to be released by April 17 and probably knew it would be critical, has not slowed down its attempt to sell more historic properties in recent weeks, according to Savethpostoffice.com, a site run by Steven Hutkins, a professor of English at NYU.  The USPS has gone on with the sale of post offices in Burlingame, Somerville, Massachusetts, and Princeton, New Jersey, wrote Hutkins.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 11.17.30 AM Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 11.17.35 AM

At the March 11 hearing before the ACHP, Rossmann said the chair of the council observed at the time that “the postal service may have succeeded in selling some of its historic properties up to now but in Berkeley they have met their match.”

(Read Bates’ statement here and the statement of Jacquelyn McCormick, the executive director of the National Post Office Coalition here.)

Read the report of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Editors’ note: This USPS sent a statement on 4/21:

“The U.S. Postal Service has a long history of working with the ACHP and the recommendations detailed in their report will be evaluated.
The Postal Service, itself an historical institution, highly values its historic assets and adheres to all federal laws, rules and regulations pertaining to selling historic properties. Any property under consideration to be sold is evaluated for historical purposes.
The Postal Service currently manages more than 35,000 properties — buildings and land — and nearly 9,000 are owned. Of the owned properties, at least 1,900 buildings are listed or could be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sales of historic postal properties have been very modest: 7 in 2012 and 6 in 2013 and there are no expectations this pace will increase in the near term.
Mail volume and the subsequent revenue has declined dramatically in the past 10 years. In order to preserve affordable mail service for the American public, the Postal Service is constantly improving efficiencies by making better use of space, staffing, equipment and transportation to process the nation’s mail. Reducing the number of properties the Postal Service owns contributes to the bottom line — in terms of saving money maintaining the property and in increasing revenue when the property is sold.
The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.”

Locals, city fight on to stop sale of Berkeley’s historic post office (07.19.13)
Berkeley’s political firmament rallies for post office (05.03.13)
Post Office to sell its downtown Berkeley building (04.22.13)
Council asks for 1-year moratorium on post office sale (03.06.13)
USPS hears vocal opposition to sale of downtown building (02.28.13)
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

    “It is not just that we want to save the building; we want to save its
    use, as well,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “We want this building to remain a
    U.S. Post Office and a central part of the Berkeley downtown community.”

    I strongly disagree with Mayor Bates on this issue. Given that the Postal Service plays a small and dwindling role in the everyday communication of most citizens, I think the Post Office building’s “centrality” to the downtown community could be greatly enhanced through a new use.

    For the rare instances when I need to send a physical letter or package, I avoid using the Downtown Post Office if at all possible because it suffers from poor customer service. (I had a package get misplaced there for an entire year once.) I can scarcely think of a Downtown Berkeley business or institution I visit with less frequency or delight than the Post Office, and I don’t think I’m remotely alone in that sentiment.

    I’m neither surprised nor upset that the ACHP has made these recommendations—preservation is their job—but I wish our local leaders were more forward-thinking and pragmatic about how best to preserve and reuse public buildings whose use is in precipitous decline. This pandering to precious preservationist paens about the Post Office is a disservice to Downtown Berkeley. I believe the majority of Berkeley citizens would be perfectly happy to preserve the architecture, while bringing in an exciting new use that guaranteed an appropriate level of public access.

  • Woolsey

    Completely agree with Eric. Sell it to a higher use. We don’t need this for postal service (assuming we need a postal service at all – wouldn’t it be cheaper to have UPS, FedEx, etc deliver essential mail? They can keep the throw-away litter that make up most of the deliverys)

  • EBGuy

    In the new world of clicks and mortar, guess who has a heck of a lot of mortar — in the center of the city center? I do share your trepidation about customer service, though.

  • Eric Weaver

    Come on now. Have you ever used UPS or FedEx? There is no better deal than the USPS. A letter anywhere in the country for $0.48. That’s a steal.

  • guest

    The downtown Berkeley post office is the worst post office I have used in more than 5 decades of life in California.

  • Mbfarrel

    I use the USPS quite a lot, especially for small packages. They are less expensive and at my local P.O. more convenient than private carriers. I hope this lovely building is put to use in a manner where it is enjoyed by the public, either by sale or by lease. I have no particular attachment to the building as a Post Office. I’m much more interested in saving the USPS from the Congressional privatizers trying to destroy it.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Add me to those mystified by the preservationists’ obsession with maintaining the “public historic use” of this space. The building is not going anywhere under any scenario. How does it do the community any good to have this moderately attractive block-long building sitting there as a hollow barely-used shell? Wouldn’t the community benefit by finding a way to, you know, *use* the space? I know, I know … god forbid that some *capitalist* should do something with it that involves (shudder) making a profit. But maybe if they only make a small profit that would be OK?

  • guest

    The downtown post office has two big problems.
    No one uses it.
    The lines are much too long, and I hate waiting for all the other people.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    If no one uses it, then what are “all the other people” doing there?

    Unlike many of my fellow B’side readers, I’m quite fond of our local post office, and I still mail plenty of post cards, letters, and packages there. Some of the workers are less than charming and efficient; others are fine. It’s a great building, designed for public use and enjoyment, and I’d hate to see it fall into private hands: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/sep/07/local/la-me-venice-post-office-20120907

  • Hildah

    The lines are too long but no one is using it???.?

  • BerkeleySouthside

    “Given that the Postal Service plays a small and dwindling role in the everyday communication of most citizens…”–Eric Panzer

    “…assuming we need a postal service at all…”–Woolsey

    “…a hollow barely-used shell…”–FosterBoondoggle

    Clearly, none of these commentators have ever set foot in the downtown Berkeley Post Office. I use it several times a week, at different times of the day, and it is always busy. The same goes for the Elmwood Post Office. I don’t know what world these commentators live in, but they need to get out more. And why shouldn’t I enjoy doing my business in an attractive building, paid for by the taxpayers of yore, that was designed as a Post Office and continues to be heavily used as such?

  • John Freeman

    Hear, hear!

    There’s also no reason to believe the range of services offered won’t increase in the future, such as if proposals for USPS banking services continue to advance.

  • guest

    The only reason the downtown Post Office is constantly packed is because it has some of the slowest and most abusive service of any establishment in Berkeley.

    “Enjoy” doing business at the downtown Berkeley post office? Only someone who had never been there could think that doing business there could be enjoyable.

  • guest

    Yes, great idea! They can’t even do the few things they do now efficiently or with a good attitude, why not add new complicated services to their list of offerings!

  • Tizzielish

    Don’t you know that the USPS already delivers a significant percentage of packages for both UPS and FedEx? And, as others point out, the post office is much cheaper than UPS or FedEx.

  • Tizzielish

    It’s true, service downtown sucks. I wonder if poor service is deliberate in a propaganda effort to irritate residents. But poor service is not the issue: that building is on the National Historic Register, it belongs to the people, it is part of our commons and it was built during the WPA and has an important WPA mural in the lobby. This is our heritage, not just service.

  • Tizzielish

    It’s not a block long in the front. Do you mean is goes from Allston to Kittredge? The post office could repurpose the back facility that they chose to no longer use to organize mail — they didn’t have to eliminate the work downtown, clearly they have been setting up these sales for years. But I bet the non-retail portion could be used for biz storage, maybe a maker’s space, maybe a coworking space, maybe storage for homeless. Repurpose the back without destroyinig the hisotirclaly significant details or selling those significant pieces to private hands

  • BerkeleyDude

    Links to the report are messed up

  • I agree Eric. They repurpose historical buildings in Europe all of the time. I also agree that using the USPS is extremely unpleasant experience when you have to go there in person. In fact, it’s increasingly unpleasant when you don’t. So far in the past 4 months they have lost, but claimed to have delivered 3 packages to me. I’ve spoken with neighbors on different blocks that claim they get my packages and will dump them back into blue collection boxes when they get around to it. Complaints to USPS fall on deaf ears, so I ask, why are people so keen to prop up a dinosaur that offers customer dis-service by delivering mail to wrong addresses, putting customers at risk of identity theft, and shipping us tons of bulk mail that we all dump in paper recycle bins each day?

    USPS doesn’t care about their customers, so why should they even exist today?

  • Sorry about that. I fixed them and they should work now.

  • guest

    I’m guessing the point that guest is trying to make is that many people on this forum claim the post office is irrelevant in today’s market, yet most still use the postal service even if their experience is less than, shall we say, optimal. Guest’s statement, while less subtle, reminds me of my favorite Woody Allen line–”The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small. “

  • guest

    See Yogi Berra

  • John Freeman

    A simple explanation is that your harsh assessment is far from universal.

  • dave

    last i heard…the post office delivers as much in a week than ups and fed ex deliver in a year.i read 40 million packages are completed by USPS for ups and fed ex each year. Its utter folly to think UPS could handle even a small portion of USPS’s load.

  • susiefisch

    Unfortunately, the USPS is not going to be eliminated due to it being a “redundant and expensive service for our government to provide”. The Post Office is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution. So it is not going away, only moving to cheaper digs. I find it amazing that so many people that want all social and business communication to move on-line or through private companies, aren’t considering the continued risk of security breaches, electricity failures, and NSA intrusion in this equation. As far as I know, we still live in a country where I can write a letter and mail it to my friend without having it opened and read by someone else without a search warrant. Not so sure about my e-mail communications or Facebook posts.

  • guest

    “an entire building in downtown dedicated to postal mail is an unecessary luxury.”

    Both sides of the controversy agree that the post office will not keep using the mail sorting area that takes up most of this building, because sorting has moved to another location, though many people want to keep retail postal service in the lobby of this building rather than moving it to a rented space. The “entire building” dedicated to postal mail is a straw-man argument.

    The claim that mail will disappear completely because of the internet and mobile phones reminds me of the claim that radio will disappear completely because of television. It didn’t work out that way.

    If anything, the idea that mail will disappear is more far fetched, because the products that you order through the internet generally arrive in the mail.

  • guest

    I get lots of packages delivered by the USPS, and I have never (not even once) had one delivered to the wrong address.

  • guest

    You got it. My earlier post was based on Yogi Berra: “no one goes there, because it is too crowded.”

    Opponents of the post office complain about the long lines, and they also complain that no one used the post office. Proves that they are just looking for something to complain about.

    The last time I was in the downtown post office, it was very busy. The idea that no one uses it is ridiculous.

  • Guest

    Have you seen the reviews for the downtown post office?

  • guest

    In terms of total number of customers served it’s not actually that busy. The long lines are the result of glacial service, not high demand.

  • guest

    Most of the items people order through the internet arrive via UPS, a private company with vastly superior service.

  • guest

    Not the ones that I order. They come in the mail.

  • guest

    You don’t seem to understand that everyone agrees that they should find some other user for the sorting area (most of the building), which the post office no longer uses.

    The preservationists prefer keeping USPS ownership and having some other user lease the sorting area. If you read Tom Bates’ latest comments on this, you will see that they are also open to other ideas that allow the USPS to continue using the lobby for retail sales with some other user for the sorting area.

    The USPS has said it will keep this retail sales space in downtown Berkeley, though it might move it to another location. Despite fantasies about the internet and UPS replacing the post office completely, and despite complaints about bad service, retail mail service will remain in downtown Berkeley under any scenario.

    I am mystified by many people’s obsession with kicking retail service out of the existing post office, so that it moves to a rented space in downtown instead. What is the benefit of moving the same downtown post office with the same employees to a different and less attractive space?

  • Lucky you. Don’t move to West Berkeley where you have to rely on USPS management/oversight in Zone 10. You’ll be screwed.

  • guest

    “What is the benefit of moving the same downtown post office with the same employees to a different and less attractive space?”

    The possibility that visiting a beautiful building could be a helpful, enjoyable purpose.

  • guest

    Right. You can just tell from their comments that the anti-post-office people are motivated by their love of beautiful buildings.

  • Gregory Kennedy

    Just to clarify, my point was that mail use and postal revenue is in decline. Operating costs needs to come down and the USPS needs to raise cash. This is why they want to sell or rent the building. It seems very straight forward. I’m not sure why there is much confusion and resistance, I guess people don’t like change? The actual building is a historic landmark, so no one can alter it significantly. I personally would like it to become a farmers market.

    As for mail, yes it will continue to be a service people use. Just less than they did 15 years ago.

  • guest

    Those who want to preserve USPS ownership of the building agree that the area used for sorting mail should be rented to some other user. That is all of the building except for the small lobby used for retail sales.

    USPS plans to keep a retail presence in downtown, whether they keep it in the lobby or move it to a rented storefront.

    It would be nice if the large sorting area could become a farmers market, but of course, they have to find some use that is economically viable.

    It is interesting that there is so much confusion and resistance on both sides.

    I think the greatest confusion comes from those who do like change, and who mistakenly believe that obstructionists want to keep this entire building for USPS use. In fact, no one wants that.