Across the country, amidst cries of protest, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is studying the idea of selling 4,400 public post offices. 78 are actually for sale today, while a few have already been sold. In large urban areas, the buildings are often located in prime downtown areas. In smaller communities, these post offices can be the heart and soul of a town. In many cases, the buildings are historically significant and anchor business districts, often containing irreplaceable art work which has become an integral part of a City’s cultural landscape.
Claiming losses of $22 billion in revenue due to the Internet and Congress’s 2006 law which requires the Post Office – and no other agency – to prefund future retiree health benefits, the USPS asserts it has no recourse but to divest itself of assets. However, critics claim it’s a manufactured crisis intended to privatize public resources. In the USPS’ 2012 Study, other measures were identified such as reducing delivery days, creating their own health plan, and encouraging early retirement. As a result, Gray Brechin, a Berkeley author and architectural historian, calls the sale of U.S. Post Offices “an old-fashioned, 19th Century land grab in the 21st Century.”
Unfortunately, California has more post offices for sale than any other state in the country. This might be due to the simple fact that California is one of the larger and most populated states and that it has higher real estate values. But it is interesting to note that the real estate firm of Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE) is advising the Postal Service on the sale of the offices as well as serving as their listing agent. Perhaps even more interesting is that Californian Richard Blum is the Chairman of CBRE, is a University of California Regent, and is married to US Senator Dianne Feinstein. . . .
Since many U.S. Post Offices are historical landmarks – and they are publicly owned — why are they being slated for sale and why can’t they be saved? First and foremost, the USPS is looking for revenue. The post offices that have been selected for possible sales tend to be older and located in downtown areas where real estate values are higher and sales more robust. Secondly, even though the USPS has determined that selling an historical post office will have an adverse effect on it, they are not providing sufficient protections or covenants to the significant structures that are slated to be sold. Therefore, once a post office passes out of public hands, typically, it is not well-protected and has no guarantee of being preserved.
Needless to say, the preservation community is trying to prevent as much loss as possible to these very important buildings. The National Trust has added U.S. Post Offices to their 2012 Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places List and are working to amend federal legislation and stewardship in regard to the buildings. They are also monitoring three very significant land transfers around the country, the most important and highly visible one being the Berkeley Main Post Office. This 1914 Beaux Arts structure, based on the Renaissance design of Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence, Italy, anchors Berkeley’s historic Civic Center District and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. In addition to the Trust, California Representative Barbara Lee, the Berkeley City Council and School District, the California Preservation Foundation, and the State Office of Historical Preservation have all requested that the USPS reconsider its decision to sell this most beloved of post offices.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little that can be done. While much fanfare and protest about Berkeley’s PO dominates local news stories, the USPS has not been forthcoming in their community meetings, public outreach, sales proceedings, or historic protections. The problems faced in saving Berkeley’s Main are common throughout California: the USPS’ lack of communication with the public and interest groups; the USPS’ preference for selling historic resources instead of less significant properties; the loss of federal control of a public asset; the USPS’ lack of funding for covenant enforcement; and how to provide public access to historic properties once they are sold, especially as many contain significant murals from The New Deal Era.
Nevertheless, the National Trust, the California Preservation Foundation, and other interest groups are advocating action in order to preserve these public treasures: get involved and informed, go to public meetings, engage local, state, and federal officials; appeal decisions to sell post offices and initiate the Section 106 process if appeals are denied; and help identify preservation-minded buyers such as local governments and developers because the best reuse for a post office would be a public function.
But don’t forget that the USPS is mostly interested in revenue. Even though these structures are public buildings, the USPS will probably select the most lucrative offer. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the sale of US Post Offices is really not a public affair at all, it’s a real-estate deal. And “Location, Location, Location” may be the factor that determines whether a post office is “relocated” or not.