Post Office by Darius Wekwerth
The main Post Office on Allston Way. Photo by Darius Wekwerth

The Berkeley city attorney has informed the City Council he believes someone has purchased the downtown U.S. post office at 2000 Allston Way, and that it is time for Berkeley to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service to stop the sale.

A letter to that effect was leaked to the Berkeley Daily Planet, which published it on Thursday.

Zach Cowan, Berkeley’s city attorney, told Berkeleyside he could not share the letter he sent to council since it was privileged attorney-client communication. But Cowan said the version on the Planet website was accurate.

“It is my conclusion that at a minimum a buyer has been chosen, and that it is likely that there is at least a letter of understanding in place, if not a contract and perhaps an open escrow,” Cowan wrote to council, according to the Daily Planet.

“Accordingly, pursuant to the authority granted by the Council in May 2013, I have directed our outside counsel, Tony Rossmann, to initiate litigation against the USPS to prevent the sale of the Berkeley Main Post Office. We are working closely with the National Trust and have asked them to participate in the litigation as well.”

The name of the purchaser is still secret, although there have been rumors that it is a Berkeley developer. Berkeley has not been informed by the USPS who the purchaser may be, according to Christine Daniel, city manager.

The post office confirmed to the Contra Costa Times Friday that the building is “under contract but not yet sold.”

Read Berkeleyside’s past coverage of the sale of the downtown post office.

The USPS first announced it wanted to sell the downtown post office on Allston Way in June 2012. It said it would move its operations to another site in downtown Berkeley.

The announced sale was part of the USPS’ massive sell-off of historic post offices to reduce its operating costs. The USPS has been in financial difficulty since Congress ordered it in 2006 to prepay health benefits for future retirees at a rate of $5.5 billion annually. That has placed a huge strain on the agency.

According to post office activists, the USPS has circumvented state and national laws against selling historic properties by declaring sales as “relocations,” rather than closures. This means there are fewer ways to slow down or stop the process, and very limited means to appeal the decision.

There have been so many sales of historic post offices, despite community outcry, that the National Trust for Historic Preservation put historic post offices on its “2012 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places.”

The Berkeley City Council has opposed the sale of the post office, a Renaissance Revival building on Allston Way that was designed by Oscar Wenderoth and erected in 1914. The interior contains a WPA mural by Suzanne Scheur depicting early Berkeley history. The building is on the Historic Register.

The City Council has tried a number of maneuvers to stop the sale, including the recent rezoning of the Civic Center core. The new law says the historic buildings in the core, including the old City Hall and the Veteran’s Building, cannot be used for commercial purposes. Height limits are capped at 50 feet, or the height of old City Hall.

A crowd gathered Tuesday to hear Ralph Nader's views on the proposed sale of the post office. Photo: Darius Wekwerth
A crowd gathered in July 2014  to hear Ralph Nader’s views on the proposed sale of the post office. Photo: Darius Wekwerth
A crowd gathered in July 2014  to hear Ralph Nader’s views on the proposed sale of the post office. Photo: Darius Wekwerth

There have been numerous demonstrations and camp outson the steps of the post office by Save the Berkeley Post Office and other groups to protest the building’s sale.

Despite the outcry, the USPS has determined that the sale of the post office would produce “no adverse effect.” The post office has pledged to require the new owner to comply with a “preservation covenant,” to ensure that the historic aspects of the structure are preserved.

Not all residents of Berkeley are opposed to the post office sale. John Caner, who runs the Downtown Berkeley Association, has spoken out at council meetings to suggest the building might be used in different ways to bring new vitality to the area.

Berkeley City Councilman Gordon Wozniak said he thinks the building could be repurposed, since 80% of it is empty. (The post office has already moved its distribution facility to another site.) He would like to keep the front section as a post office, but the rear could be used as a farmers market or other community use.

“I don’t think saving the building to keep it empty” is a good idea, said Wozniak.

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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...