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.
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.
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.”
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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