Post Office Inspectors cleared protesters from the steps after nearly 17 months. Photo: Lance Knobel
The United States Postal Service has filed a lawsuit against Berkeley, contending that the city passed the Civic Center Overlay ordinance just to thwart the government’s sale of the building.  Photo: Lance Knobel
The United States Postal Service has filed a lawsuit against Berkeley, contending that the city passed the Civic Center Overlay ordinance just to thwart the government’s sale of the building.  Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeley’s attempt to limit commercial development of the Main Post Office conflicts with federal law and should be overturned, a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday by the U.S. Postal Service declares.

When Berkeley passed the Civic Center Overlay in September 2014, limiting the post office and eight other buildings to civic uses such as museums, libraries and performance halls, it violated the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution, said the lawsuit.

        Read about the fight surrounding the downtown Berkeley post office.

The law was “enacted primarily to prevent the sale of the Berkeley Main Post Office,” according to the lawsuit. “The shape of the Zoning Ordinance confirms that it was designed to regulate the Berkeley Main Post Office rather than to preserve the character of a neighborhood in the City. Within a given block, certain buildings are included, while others are not.”

Before the overlay was passed, the Main Post Office could have been used for retail or high-density residential.

The lawsuit is only the latest twist in the long-running saga between USPS and the city of Berkeley. The postal service put the landmarked historic post office at 2000 Allston Way up for sale in 2012. It contended that the building was underutilized as the postal service only used 4,000 square feet of the 57,000-square foot building. Federal officials proposed shuttering the large building and consolidating operations in a smaller rented space in downtown Berkeley.

The USPS is under severe financial pressure because of a Congressional vote that requires it to prepay its pension plans. To raise funds, the USPS has put dozens  of historic and old post offices on the market and has sold a number of them, including one in Florida (purchased by the billionaire Jeff Green for offices) and in Venice, CA (sold to movie producer Joel Silver). The push to deaccession historic post offices so alarmed preservationists that the National Trust for Historic Preservation put historic post offices on its “2012 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places.”

Berkeley officials and many residents were outraged by the attempt to sell the historic downtown building. They expressed concern that if the building was privately owned, no one could see the historic murals inside. In addition, they contended that the American people had already paid for the building.

The USPS said it tried to be sympathetic to the community’s concerns and offered to add restrictions on the sale by requiring that the new owners lease back space for continued operations and offer access to the murals. The USPS said in the lawsuit that Berkeley was not open to these concessions.

The controversy over the building and the restrictions on development from the historic designation and the city appears to have limited interest from developers. Hudson McDonald of Berkeley made a bid for the building in September 2014, which was accepted, but the firm later withdrew the offer because of all the uncertainty surrounding the building.

Berkeley took the USPS to court in November 2014 to stop the sale, but the case was dismissed in April 2015. However the judge ruled that the USPS had to take the post office off the market. It did.

The USPS then sent a series of letters warning Berkeley that it planned to file a lawsuit. Despite extensive conversations about the matter, no agreement was reached.

Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan said Monday that he had just gotten a copy of the suit and was not yet ready to comment.

The lawsuit points out that the passage of the Civic Center Overlay seemed to be specifically aimed at limiting development of the post office. Of the nine parcels included in the overlay, Berkeley owns seven. The YMCA owns one and the post office owns the other. While the Civic Center Overlay restricts uses of the building for civic purposes, Berkeley rents space in its buildings to groups that “conduct commercial activity inconsistent with the Zoning Ordinance,” according to the lawsuit.

The USPS is also asking that Berkeley pay its legal fees.

DOJ threatens lawsuit over Berkeley post office (05.09.16)
Berkeley post office protesters cleared out in early morning raid (04.12.16)
Judge dismisses Berkeley’s bid to stop sale of post office (04.15.15)
Chances are slim of stopping Berkeley Post Office sale (07.23.12)
Second postal site in Berkeley for sale (07.09.12)
Postal service plans sale of Berkeley’s main post office (06.25.12)

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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...