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

Dozens of people carrying banners and outrage turned up at the Main Post Office on Allston Way Tuesday evening, to rally against its planned sale and celebrate its “almost 100th” birthday.

Holding signs that read “Stop the Sale,” “Save Our Historic Post Office Building,” “Don’t Sell Our Labor History,” about 100 people expressed dismay that the United States Postal Service intended to sell the 1914 historic building and move retail operations to another site downtown.

Gary Brechin, a historian who has written extensively about historic post offices, rallied the crowd by describing the importance of the post offices around the country that were built in an era of government expansion. Now dozens of those buildings, from the New Deal era and earlier, have been put up for sale, part of a Congressional plan to privatize the post office and an “old fashioned 19th century land grab of the 21st century,” he said. Brechin encouraged the crowd to fight back.

“What we are going to do here is build a national coalition to take our property and our post office back,” said Brechin, who is hoping to set up meetings with other communities whose post offices have been put up for sale. These include  Palo Alto, Burlingame, San Rafael, Modesto, Ukiah, La Jolla, and Venice.

The protest outside the post office at 2000 Allston Way, which was built in 1914. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

The Berkeley City Council had been expected to adopt a resolution Tuesday night asking the USPS to stop the sale, but the meeting was cancelled because the elevator in Old City Hall was broken. But City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli told the crowd he expected the measure to pass on July 31.

“We will not be urging the post office to sell the building,” said Capitelli. “We will be urging the post office to take it off the market.”

If the experience of other communities is any guide, Berkeley will have a difficult time stopping the sale of the building at 2000 Allston Way. Under increasing pressure from Congress to cut expenses, the USPS has listed about 40 historic post offices for sale and has sold about 12 of them. Even though many communities have protested, stating that the historic buildings served as an essential part of creating a vibrant downtown, the USPS has gone through with the sales. In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared historic post offices to be placed on the 2012 list of American’s Most Endangered Buildings.

Augustine Ruiz, a spokesman for the USPS who attended the rally, said a few historic post offices slated for closure had been saved, including one in the Veteran’s Home in Yountville and one in Oakville. But those post offices fell under a different USPS cost-cutting program, one that sought to close or shorten hours in rural locations.

One reason it has been difficult to stop the sale of historic post offices is that the USPS often categorizes them as relocations rather than closures, according to Steve Hutkins, who runs the website SavethePostOffice.com. The laws of regulating the relocation of services from a historic property to a smaller, nearby retail site are laxer than the laws regulating closures, he said.  And since the USPS cannot legally close distribution centers, it often first moves that portion of operations out of a historic building and then claims the building is underutilized. The USPS is planning to move the distribution services from the Allston Way location to a distribution center on Eighth Street.

There is really no way to appeal the decision since the Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the USPS, has declined to consider community’s formal protests.

There are already a few Berkeley organizations that are rumored to be intrigued by the idea of moving into the old Post Office. One postal worker, who asked not to be named, said that representatives from the downtown Berkeley YMCA, located right across the street, had already been by to look at the building. Fran Galletti, the CEO of the YMCA of the Central Bay Area, has not returned calls for comment at time of publication.

The rally drew a number of candidates for office including Jacquelyn McCormick, who is running for mayor, Sophie Hahn, who is running against Laurie Capitelli, and Adolfo Cabral, who is running against Darryl Moore.

Chances are slim of saving Berkeley post office
Op/Ed: Berkeley needs to wake up to loss of post office [7.16.12]
Second postal site in Berkeley for sale [07.09.12]
Postal service plans sale of Berkeley’s main post office [06.25.12]
A plea to save Park Station post office [04.07.11]
Sacramento Street post office to close [04.06.11]

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...