Binding the nation together: Berkeley and the Bronx join forces to save the post office


April 13, 2013

For our Founding Fathers, post offices and post roads played an essential role in “binding our nation together.”  Congress reaffirmed that vision when it passed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970: “The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together.”

The leaders of the Postal Service appear to have forgotten that mission.  Their actions — closing post offices and processing facilities, slowing down the mail, reducing services, focusing on the interests of large corporate mailers rather than citizens and communities — seem intended to dismantle the postal system, not to preserve it.

This week, however, Postal Service executives did manage to bind the country together, but not in a way they could possibly have intended.  In an unprecedented act of coast-to-coast solidarity, postal activists in Berkeley, California, have joined forces with community leaders in the Bronx, New York, to stop the closing of the Bronx General Post Office.

 

Relocating a landmark

As the New York Times described it, the Bronx GPO is “an official city landmark, a centerpiece of life in the borough for more than 75 years and a monumental gallery of the work of Ben Shahn, one of America’s leading Social Realist artists.”  Shahn worked with Diego Rivera on the murals in Rockefeller Center, and the Bronx GPO contains thirteen of his works.  One of them (shown above) depicts poet Walt Whitman instructing some young people that "Democracy rests finally upon us."

In spite of the historic, artistic, and economic importance of the Bronx post office, the Postal Service has decided that it would be in its own financial interest to close the office, sell the building, transfer workers, and move retail services to a leased space somewhere else.  The Postal Service calls the action a "relocation" because in its view retail services are simply being moved elsewhere.  

The Postal Service formally announced its final decision to proceed with the relocation on March 14, just eleven weeks after first informing the community of its intentions.  According to the federal regulations that govern relocations, the community had thirty days to appeal. 

On April 10, the law firm of Ford & Huff, acting on behalf of Bronx resident Julio Pabon and the Berkeley-based National Post Office Collaborate, sent a letter of appeal to Tom Samra, USPS Vice President of Facilities, asking him to reconsider the Postal Service’s decision to close the post office and sell the historic building.  The letter is here.

The appeal reviews many of the problems with the Postal Service’s decision, and it’s packed with references to federal laws, regulations, and precedents, thus preparing the way for a legal argument, should the case end up in court.

 

Who’s who

The threat to historic post offices has been receiving a considerable amount of attention.  Last year, the National Trust put the historic post office building on its list of Most Endangered Places, and there have been recent articles in the New York Times, USA Today, and Daily Kos.  The sales have provoked protests in many places across the country, notably in California communities like Venice, Ukiah, La Jolla, and Berkeley.

The appeal letter over the Bronx GPO, however, represents a significant turn of events.  It’s not about one community fighting over one post office anymore.  The issue is nationwide, and there’s a big-time postal law firm on the case.  Here’s a who’s who of the players.

The National Post Office Collaborate is a new organization that grew out of the effort to prevent the sale of the historic 1914 post office in Berkeley, California.  That fight has been led for the past several months by the Save the Berkeley Post Office group (its Facebook page is here), whose members include Harvey Smith, President of the National New Deal Preservation Association, another organization that is focusing on endangered post offices across the country.  Recognizing that Berkeley was not alone in its fight to save a historic post office, the Collaborate has gone national in its approach, hence its focus now on the Bronx GPO.

Julio Pabon is a resident of the South Bronx who’s been a community activist since the early 1970s, working on issues like human rights, education, and employment.  He’s also the founder of a Latino sports marketing firm that consults with many major league baseball stars.  Mr. Pabon is appealing the relocation decision on behalf of his community.

The law firm of Ford & Huff works on federal legislation and regulations, with a special focus on Postal Service issues.  Its attorneys are prominent in postal circles, having worked with stakeholders like the National Postal Policy Council, the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, the Newspaper Association of America, and the National League of Postmasters. 

The Ford & Huff attorney working with the National Post Office Collaborate on the case of the historic post offices is Harold Hughes, former General Counsel of the Postal Service.  He has wide experience in civil litigation with the U.S. Department of Justice.  It’s Mr. Hughes who wrote the letter to the Postal Service about the Bronx GPO.  

The letter is addressed to Tom Samra, USPS VP of Facilities, who oversees all Postal Service properties — over 8,000 owned and overly 25,000 leased facilities.  Mr. Samra been with the Postal Service for 31 years.  According to the USPS website, “he is responsible for the disposition and/or redevelopment of excess properties.”  It’s likely that Mr. Samra played a key role in the decision to sell the Bronx GPO, yet it’s also Mr. Samra who will now consider the appeal.

 

NEPA issues

One of the main issues in the appeal is the way the Postal Service went about making its decision to close the Bronx GPO.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of any major action. The Postal Service is generally excluded from NEPA requirements, but the appeal letter argues that this a special case because it’s connected with other proposed actions, including the sale of many other historic post offices.

The Postal Service has a policy to “encourage and facilitate public involvement” in decisions that affect “the quality of the human environment, and it’s supposed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) whenever a proposed action is “significant" (39 CFR 775.2). The appeal letter states that selling the Bronx GPO is certainly significant, especially considering the cumulative impact of selling numerous historic post offices.

An EIS is also warranted because of the possible impacts on traffic, housing, community services, and so on.  For example, relocating the mail processing and letter carriers who work in the building would mean more truck traffic in and out of the area, which would exacerbate the already problematic air quality in the Bronx.

Another issue raised by the appeal letter is the Postal Service’s failure to cooperate with stakeholders at an early stage in the process.  For example, the National Post Office Collaborate submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all environment-related documents for all historic post offices under review for sale.  The Postal Service’s deadline for responding has passed, and the Collaborate has not received any response so far.

The appeal letter also argues that because the Postal Service is clearly considering a significant number of historic post offices for sale — over 40 are known to be under review or for sale (on top of a dozen or so that have been sold recently) — the Postal Service should be required to prepare a comprehensive “programmatic environmental impact statement” that addresses the “cumulative or synergistic environmental impact.”  

 

NHPA issues

In addition to the NEPA issues, the appeal letter addresses the Postal Service’s responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  The letter states that the Postal Service has ”entirely failed” to fulfill its obligations regarding the sale of the Bronx GPO, specifically with reference to the Ben Shahn murals.

The appeal letter argues that the Postal Service has not complied with the NHPA (specifically Sections 106 and 111) by failing to ensure continued public access to this public art, by planning to completely change the use of the building, and by not considering a full range of alternatives.  

The letter doesn’t mention it, but in similar cases in the past (like the sale of the Venice post office), the Postal Service said that it would follow the NHPA requirements later in the process, when preparing to dispose of the building, but not at the earlier stage, when it was only focusing on the “relocation” of retail services.  A relocation, says the Postal Service, does not fall under the NHPA definitions of an “undertaking.”  The appeal letter implicitly challenges the Postal Service’s position by suggesting that the relocation of services and sale of the building are inextricably connected.  The Section 106 requirements should have been considered in effect when the relocation plan was first announced.

The appeal letter raises yet another issue, this one concerning the murals inside the post office.  The Postal Service acts as if it owns the art, but the art belongs to the American people.  The Postal Service possesses it “subject to the obligations and requirements of a public trust.”  This trust creates rights in the public to the art, yet the Postal Service has shown no consideration of this public trust interest.

 

Title 39 issues

Not only has the Postal Service failed to comply with NEPA and the NHPA, it has also failed to follow its own regulations under the Postal Reorganization Act.  Title 39 requires the Postal Service to consider the effect of a post office closing on the community and employees (39 USC 404(d)).

The Postal Service did not follow these regulations because it claims that they don’t apply.  It says that it's not closing the Bronx GPO — it's just "relocating" postal services.   

That obviously makes little sense to the average person.  The post office is clearly being closed and sold.  

The Postal Service's interpretation of the law has been upheld in proceedings before the Postal Regulatory Commission, which regularly dismisses cases when communities appeal a relocation decision.  The USPS-PRC interpretation of the law may not be the final word, however, and it is currently being challenged in court by attorney Elaine Mittleman on behalf of Venice, California, and her own community, Pimmit, Virginia (the brief is here).

The appeal letter concludes by suggesting that the March 14 letter from the Postal Service announcing its decision to move forward with the relocation “gives every indication of a rush to judgment on a public issue which certainly deserves better and more thorough consideration.”  The letter asks the Postal Service to “reconsider its hasty decision,” to prepare an environmental impact statement, to comply with NHPA, and to more fully consider the concerns raised by the Bronx community.  The ball, as they say, is now in Mr. Samra's court.

If you’d like to know more about the National Post Office Collaborate, you can contact its Executive Director, Jacquelyn McCormick, at robleroad@gmail.com.  You can help support the Collaborate’s efforts and help pay for legal fees by making a contribution on its website.

(Photo credits: Shahn mural; Bronx GPO)

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