New Zoning Rule Halts Post Office Sale

October 14, 2014

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(This article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Management’s drive to sell historic post offices has met resistance in many communities, but none has been more creative – or relentless – than those of Berkeley, CA, where residents have fought the sale of the Main Post Office since 2012.

On Sept. 30, the Berkeley City Council approved a new zoning ordinance that restricts the use of property in the Civic Center Historic District. The new law will make it virtually impossible for the USPS to sell the office to a commercial company.

This victory is the culmination of a two-year struggle that involved a wide variety of tactics – including “occupying” the post office, petition drives, lawsuits, and demonstrations.

Berkeley isn’t the only community that has had success. Santa Clara, CA; Houston, TX, and Stamford, CT, have also saved their historic post offices. But more often than not, communities haven’t been able to stop the sales.

At press time, the USPS was considering filing a lawsuit to challenge the zoning ordinance. Clearly, postal management is not just concerned with the Berkeley property: It is fearful that other communities will adopt zoning regulations as a means of protecting their historic post offices.

Blistering Criticism

The Berkeley Main Post Office is one of 1,100 that were built in the 1930s under the auspices of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The construction of big, beautiful post offices endowed with original art put people to work during the Great Depression.

The offices were built in the center of communities across the nation and became true community centers. As a result, the properties are prime real estate.

The Postal Service’s method of selling its property has drawn blistering criticism. In 2011, the USPS awarded CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate firm, an exclusive contract to handle the sales. [The chairman of CBRE’s Board of Directors is Richard Blum, the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).]

An example of how CBRE does business can be found in the recent sale of the Bronx GPO. The real estate giant sold the building to one of its own clients, Youngwoo & Associates, and will receive a double commission for representing both the seller and the buyer. But the Bronx deal is nothing new.

In a February 2014 report, the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) wrote, “CBRE conflicts of interest could lead to financial loss to the Postal Service and decrease public trust in the Postal Service’s brand.” The OIG recommended that the arrangement be scrapped.

In another ploy, the USPS frequently claims that it is “relocating” an office – not closing it – to sidestep requirements for public input. The new locations are typically much smaller and far less convenient for customers than the original.

So communities make do with less, while facilities that were originally paid for by taxpayers are sold to private buyers – buyers who are often represented by the real estate company setting the price.

In September, the USPS OIG issued another report, titled, “More Transparency Would Enhance Post Office Relocation Process,” that calls for new guidelines on relocation. Among other flaws, the report notes, the USPS process allows the same body that selects sites for relocation to hear appeals on its decision.

“These buildings belong to the people,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “The Postal Service has no business selling them.”




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