On Tuesday, the US Post Office listened to around 50 Berkeley residents tell them why they did not want the historic downtown Berkeley post office building to be put up for sale. They witnessed a 200-strong rally with singing and chanting, and were subjected to not a litte heckling and jibes.
Benjamin Franklin made an appearance in the guise of local actor Josh Kornbluth. (“Welcome to Berkeley,” he said. “I think you’ll find Berkeley will work with you and the founding fathers will be behind you.”) Mayor Tom Bates received a rousing round of applause when he said he and the Council — who, in a rare show of unanimity, are agreed on this issue — would fight to prevent a sale. And the two Post Office staffers who had called the public meeting as per protocol outlined, with stark numbers, just how dire the financial situation is for USPS nationally, and why the public organization believes it makes sense to divest itself of a building only a fraction of which is now used for postal services.
Speaking for USPS, Augustine Ruiz and Diana Alvarado said the organization’s ideal scenario would be to stay at the current location, renting space from new owners.
“Our preference is to lease back 4,000 sq ft in the existing building,” Alvarado said, citing examples of where this had been done, such as Sausalito. She also stressed that Berkeley has seven post office locations and USPS is not proposing to close any of them. However the organization, she said, is “no longer able to maintain [the downtown Post Office building] the way it should be maintained worthy of its heritage.”
The Renaissance-style building at 2000 Allston Way has 57,200 sq ft, but, since the mail sorting operations were moved to the USPS’s 8th Street facility, the property, like many post offices around the country, is under-utilized. Should the proposal to sell go ahead, the Post Office said it will look for replacement space in downtown Berkeley “as close to existing post office as possible.”
Ruiz and Alvarado made a presentation that highlighted the nature of the organization’s predicament. The pressures are fourfold: from high labor costs, the post office’s universal service obligation, drops in mail volume, and price competition. Total mail volume has declined 27% since 2006 and USPS had a $15.9 billion net loss in 2012. They explained that the organization would have made a $100 million profit had it not been for the Congress-mandated Retiree Health Benefits funding. A 2006 law requires the USPS to fund fully a 75-year liability over a 10-year period, which costs the organization over $5.5 billion a year (that pre-funding includes benefits for employees who aren’t even born yet).
In the public hearing, many spoke of how much they appreciated the post office service generally; some spoke specifically of using PO boxes on Allston Way for decades and the joy of writing and receiving letters. Local resident Moni Law was one of several who spoke of post office’s role in being a gateway to middle class life for African Americans. “It’s ironic that we are meeting on the last two days of Black History month to discuss this,” she said. “Do not slash jobs.”
The historic and architectural significance of the building was highlighted by many, including the National New Deal Preservation Association, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Committee, the National Trust, and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. (Read testimony presented by Harvey Smith of the National New Deal Preservation Association.)
The consensus among those who participated was that the building should remain public property. Reading a statement, former mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick said: “Post offices should stay in public domain — the public paid for them, the public owns them.”
A representative for Congresswoman Barbara Lee read a statement in which Lee urged the post office to “immediately abandon plans to close this local treasure.”
Both Bates and Councilman Jesse Arreguín, whose district encompasses downtown, said they would work with USPS to find alternative uses for 2000 Allston Way. “We are an innovative and creative community — we will work with you to find ways to use the building,” Bates said. “There should be ways to generate income from that building.”
Arreguín said the building at 2000 Allston Way was an anchor to downtown and part of Berkeley’s “identity and soul.” He said he understood USPS needed $500,000 in annual revenues to keep the building and urged the organization to consider leasing large parts of it.
Tuesday’s meeting is followed by a 15-day written comment period which ends on March 13. A record of the public hearing will now be submitted to Washington and a decision will be made regarding a potential sale. Ruiz said it was difficult to provide a timeline.
The Post Office has started due diligence on a potential sale, including conducting an appraisal. They have not yet assigned a local broker, although the organization is working more broadly with Richard Blum, chair of the board of CBRE , the commercial real estate company hired by the USPS to sell off its properties. Blum is married to Senator Diane Feinstein, and his involvement was criticized by many at Tuesday’s meeting.
While most buildings that the post office wants to sell do eventually get sold, Alvarado, answering a question from a community member, mentioned two examples where USPS did not go through with sale after listening to public comment: Huntington Beach and Menlo Park.
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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