As a preservationist, I am disheartened to read about the current camp-out going on at the main Berkeley post office. Now is the time to work with potential buyers to craft an appropriate new use of the building, not fight a losing battle.
I sympathize with those who are upset at the loss of the historic use of this building. It is a beautiful building, with historic significance, but that does not mean it cannot be thoughtfully adapted for a new use. Preservationists refer to the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Rehabilitation to guide such work. It is not always feasible for an historic building to maintain its original use, and it is preferable that a new use be adapted for the space rather than demolishing it.
I got into the field of preservation because I love old buildings. However, I’m a pragmatist, and I understand that business models change, needs change, and so building uses must necessarily change if we are to preserve them. I love single-screen movie theaters, but I understand that the business model doesn’t work today, and I would rather see those buildings reused than demolished. I get all of my bills electronically and I pay them online, so do many other people, and although I think there will always be a place for hand-written letters, packages and magazines, the post office must adapt because of technology that is making most other mail obsolete. Taking the long view, large historic buildings with lots of maintenance costs do not fit with the future of mail. We must adapt to change, as we always have.
Preservation provides the tools to make sure this is done well, but only if there is money to make it happen. If the property is undesirable because of campers, it increases the likelihood that the site will become derelict, and the building will suffer from what preservations have labeled “demolition by neglect.” There are many sad examples of historic buildings suffering from lack of use, not because of lack of interest, but because of lack of financial resources. Locally, Iceland is an example – many people wanted to see it saved, but delay in finding another suitable use led to the property being the target of graffiti and dumping, and resulted in a blight on the neighborhood. Last December, I was horrified to learn of the destruction of the historic Fleishhacker Pool Bathhouse near the San Francisco zoo – transients had been living in the building for years, and a fire started that destroyed a very significant, formerly beautiful building.
No one is proposing that the building be demolished, only that the use be changed. Mail has changed, more is done electronically, and the post office must adapt. It is up to activists and advocates to work to identify a new use and locate funding sources now, sooner rather than later, so that this wonderful building can be re-imagined. Dare I say it, it might be even better. That is my hope.
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