A Bronx Cheer for the Postal Service: The Fire Sale of Historic Post Offices Continues
Feb. 3, 2013
Earlier this week the Postal Service announced that it planned to sell the historic post office on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, New York. There's an excellent article about the post office by David W. Dunlap in Friday's New York Times.
The Bronx General Post Office is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City. Built in 1935, it is one of over a thousand post offices constructed by FDR’s New Deal. It is also the latest addition to a growing list of historic post offices that are being marked for sale by the Postal Service.
According to the Postal Service's annual report to Congress, filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission a few weeks ago, the Postal Service has reviewed over 4,000 facilities for potential sale, and it has identified over 600 buildings “earmarked for disposal.” Many of these will undoubtedly be historic properties. The Postal Service has sold at least a dozen historic post offices over the past year, and there are dozens more for sale or under review.
Here are a map and list of those that have been sold recently or that are known to be for sale or under study for sale. Some of these post offices are listed on the USPS properties for sale website set up by the Postal Service’s real estate agent, CBRE, but most of them are listed on local real estate sites or not listed at all. The Postal Service likes to work behind the scenes on some sales, and the community often learns about the deal after it's done. (For more data about each post office and a larger map, go to the Google docs table here.)
POST OFFICES SOLD AND FOR SALE
Symbols of pride and permanence
Building post offices put people to work during the Depression, but it did something more. It showed that even in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, the federal government was capable of doing grand things. The post offices linked individuals and communities, even in the most remote areas, to the federal government back in Washington, and they served as a symbol of government permanence, service, and culture.
As Dunlap writes, 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." The lobby features thirteen murals painted in the late 1930s by Mr. Shahn and Bernarda Bryson, his companion and later wife. Mr. Shahn also worked with Diego Rivera on the controversial mural that was removed from Rockefeller Center because it depicted Lenin.
Like most New Deal murals, Shahn's Bronx murals celebrate workers and local history. One depicts New Yorker Walt Whitman reading a poem to a group of citizens. The post office also has two sculptures, one depicting a mother and daughter looking at a letter; it's by Henry Kreiss and entitled "The Letter" (1936).
The Postal Service owns about 2,500 buildings that, like the Bronx GPO, are on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. About 440 of them are already on the National Register. (Here are a list and a map of the 440; a list of the 2,500 is here, and a map, here.)
Historic preservationists have recognized the threat to these buildings posed by the Postal Service's fire sale, and last year the National Trust named the Historic Post Office building to its list of Eleven Endangered Places for 2012. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is also working on the case. But nothing seems able to stop the Postal Service's plan to dismantle itself.
The balm of repurposing
The Postal Service has put together a slideshow that it presents to communities like Berkeley where an historic post office is about to be sold. The presentation tries to console the audience by showing how former post offices have been successfully repurposed as law offices, architectural firms, museums, cafés, and even a B&B. It doesn't show how badly communities are damaged or how angry people get toward the Postal Service and federal government when they lose their historic post office.
Nearly all of these old post offices are located in the heart of downtown or the center of town. After the post office closes, the Postal Service relocates to a small retail outlet, often inconveniently located on the outskirts of town or in a carrier annex in an industrial park. Just when people are moving from the suburbs back to walkable downtown areas, the Postal Service decides it's a good time to abandon the center. That's bad for local businesses, bad for the environment (it means more driving), and bad for community morale, but the Postal Service doesn't seem to care.
The National Trust has put together its own slideshow on the problem. It shows that the ACHP is trying to negotiate a "national programmatical agreement" with the Postal Service, with the National Trust participating as a consulting party. The agreement would help ensure that post office sales would occur in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), which requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and afford the ACHP a reasonable opportunity to comment.
There may be more in the works, however, like new legislation to prevent historic post offices from being sold, or at least to control how they’re sold, as well as legal action challenging sales when the Postal Service doesn’t follow Section 106 requirements.
The USPS Office of Inspector General has also expressed some concern, albeit indirectly. The OIG is running a post on its Pushing the Envelope blog posing the question, "Is it time to consider new uses for facilities?" If there's extra capacity in post offices and plants, rather than selling the buildings, why not put the space to new uses, like safe deposit boxes at post offices and storage lockers at plants? The space in the back of big city post offices could be used in all sorts of creative ways, like leasing space to nonprofit organizations or small businesses that would benefit by being near a post office. (If you've got an idea about how to put the space to use, you can weigh in on the OIG's blog.)
No stopping the sales
In the meantime, the sales continue. Last year, the beautiful post office in Venice, California, was sold to film producer Joel Silver, and it’s now being repurposed as his film studio. The fate of the 1941 mural by Edward Biberman depicting Abbot Kinney, founder of Venice, is still ambiguous, and there are rumors that rather than remaining public property, it’s being sold to Silver, contrary to what the public was promised.
Retail services in Venice have been "relocated" to a nearby facility. A group of Venice citizens appealed the closure to the PRC, but the Commission dismissed the case, saying that "relocations" are out of its jurisdiction. That decision is now being challenged in the D.C. circuit in a case brought by attorney Elaine Mittleman (the brief is here). The legal case may offer some hope for stopping the sale of these historic post offices, but it could take months or more before the case is actually heard.
In early October the Postal Service announced that it had come to a final decision to sell the New Deal post office in Santa Monica, California, and to relocate retail services to an annex on the outskirts of town. Congressman Henry Waxman filed an appeal with the PRC, arguing that in coming to its decision the Postal Service did not follow proper procedures, but the Commission dismissed the appeal, as it has done in similar cases, as out of its jurisdiction.
A few weeks ago, the "for sale" sign went up at the Norwich, Connecticut, post office, a downtown anchor since 1903. There's talk it will become a brew pub, or maybe a library. When a local reporter made inquiries to CBRE and the Postal Service, he got nowhere. The property is listed on the CBRE website for $550,000.
Earlier in the week, just a few days before the announcement about the Bronx GPO, the Postal Service announced that it also planned to sell the Tito Puente Post Office in East Harlem. It was built in 1975, so it's not an historic property per se, but it's a popular branch, and a closure would hurt local businesses and increase the risk of crime, since all the postal workers in the area represent a significant deterrent.
The post office in Berkeley, California, built in 1914, is under study for sale, and the citizens there are putting up a huge fight. There have been official government resolutions, demonstrations, meetings, and numerous news articles. The battle over the Berkeley post office is also highlighting one of the more disturbing aspects of the sales.
The privatization of the public realm
The Postal Service’s exclusive real estate agent on sales and leases is CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate company. The Chairman of the Board is Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Feinstein. That has all the appearances of a conflict of interest, but that doesn't seem to matter to anyone in our nation's capital.
One can only imagine how much money Blum and CBRE are making off the sales. The USPS properties on the CBRE website average $1.6 million. Selling off 600 properties could bring in a billion dollars. The details of CBRE's contract with the Postal Service are unknown, but even a one percent commission would mean $10 million for CBRE.
In 2009, CBRE won a contract with the state of California to broker over $2 billion in office buildings the state wanted to privatize because of its financial problems. Now Blum is doing the same with the Postal Service’s properties, and the goal is the same, the privatization of public property.
Along with outsourcing, selling off assets is one of the main steps in privatizing a public entity. The 1988 Presidential Commission on Privatization (under President Reagan) recommended that “divestiture of federal assets should be pursued” in the interest of ensuring the “highest and best use” of USPS assets, and that's exactly what the Postal Service and CBRE are doing.
Converting post offices into film studios, law offices, and B&Bs may be someone’s idea of “highest and best use,” but for the hundreds of communities that treasure their historic post office, the best use would simply be keeping the post office a post office. The leaders of the Postal Service should find another way to bring in new revenues, like charging their big customers postal rates that are in compliance with what it costs to deliver their mail. They should leave the historic post offices alone.
Since that isn't happening, it's up to average citizens to protect what's theirs. But that's what democracy is all about. As Whitman's poem "Songs of Democracy" says in the mural on the walls of the Bronx post office,
For we support all, fuse all;
After the rest is done
and gone, we remain;
There is no final reliance but upon us;
Democracy rests finally
upon us; (I, my brethren, begin it,)
And our visions sweep through eternity.
Photo credits: Bronx GPO exterior (David W. Dunlap); Post Office Cafe in Babylon, NY; detail from one of Shahn's murals (Dunlap); Venice PO (Evan Kalish); Norwich, CT post office; Blum & Feinstein; Whitman mural
More articles on historic post offices for sale on Save the Post Office