October 29, 2013
Yesterday there were several important developments in the fight over the historic Atlantic Street Station post office in Stamford, Connecticut, which closed on September 20 with only two-days’ notice to customers, just as the building was about to be sold to a Westchester developer.
The U.S. District Court issued a preliminary injunction to stop the sale of the historic building to developer Louis Cappelli, who has plans to raze a 1939 addition to the structure and build two high-rise apartment buildings. As the Court’s order explains, the Postal Service failed to do a satisfactory environmental review as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and therefore the sale should not go forward at this time.
The effort to block the sale of the Atlantic Street Station began on September 25 with a Complaint filed in the District Court by Stamford resident Kaysay H. Abrha, the Center for Art and Mindfulness (CAM), which wants to buy the building itself and turn it into an arts-and-education center, and the National Post Office Collaborate, which is fighting the sale of historic post offices across the country. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Adam Ford and Harold Hughes of the legal firm Ford & Huff, which is based in Utah. They’ve been joined in Connecticut by attorney Lawrence Grossman.
Yesterday’s decision could have far-reaching impacts. It’s not clear at this point if the ruling will become a precedent, but as the case moves forward, it may put more pressure on the Postal Service to conduct environmental impact reviews when it wants to sell a historic post office. As the Court stated yesterday in its ruling, “There is a strong public interest in ensuring that USPS complies with its NEPA obligations here and in any future sales of its other properties.”
Being held to NEPA obligations would mean more opportunities for public input into decisions over sales, more attention to what will happen to the post office after it’s sold, more transparency in the process, and more obstacles for the Postal Service to overcome before it sells a historic property.
The ruling also addressed the matter of the $1 million bond that the Postal Service was seeking. The Court determined that in this case, no bond was required at all. This was a huge victory for the plaintiffs because if such a large bond had been required and they were unable to come up with it, the whole case might have fallen apart.
The Court also issued a second ruling in favor of the Postal Service that removes the lis pendens that the plaintiffs had put on the property. The ruling on this matter may be significant because it involves the extent of judicial review in cases involving 39 USC 403(c).
In addition to these two rulings by the District Court, there was activity on the Stamford docket at the Postal Regulatory Commission. The Postal Service filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on the closing on the grounds that it was premature since the post office had closed for an emergency suspension, not a final determination. The PRC will probably dismiss the appeal, but the case raises important questions about why the post office closed in the first place, and one hopes that they will be addressed before the Commission decides what to do.
Yesterday’s ruling granting the preliminary injunction on the NEPA issue, without requiring a large bond, was a huge victory for CAM, the Collaborate, and their attorneys. The Collaborate has been fighting the sale of historic post offices across the country, from Berkeley to the Bronx, and its executive director Jacquelyn McCormick has been working tirelessly on the fight, networking impacted communities and fundraising for legal fees.
October 28, 2013
It’s not easy getting information out of the Postal Service about the properties it has sold or those it has earmarked for disposal, but thanks to investigative reporter Peter Byrne, a lot of news articles, and various other sources, there’s enough information out there to piece together a picture. Here’s what it looks like.
Overall, the Postal Service has sold at least 60 properties over the past three years, maybe as many as a hundred. It's brought in over $200 million through these sales and paid out over $3.7 million in commissions to its real estate broker, CBRE. Of the post offices that have been sold, 18 were historic buildings on or eligible for the National Register. In addition, over 40 historic post offices are currently listed for sale or under review and headed for the market place.
Investigating the sales
In its 2012 Annual Report to Congress, the Postal Service says that it “reviewed over 4,000 facilities, resulting in the identification of over 600 buildings earmarked for disposal.” When the New York Times asked for details to help with its article on historic post offices being sold, the Postal Service said the 600 buildings included leased properties and there were no plans to sell that many. The word “disposal” isn’t typically used for terminating leases, but the Postal Service wouldn’t provide any details about how the 600 broke down into leased and owned properties.
When asked to provide a list of the properties identified for disposal, the Postal Service typically refers reporters to the CBRE Properties for Sale website. This website, however, does not list all the properties for sale, and it doesn’t include those that are known to be under review for potential sale.
Investigative reporter Peter Byrne spent the better part of a year gathering information about the postal facilities that had been sold over the past couple of years. He filed several FOIA requests and had to fight with the Postal Service to get information about assessed values and other details on the sales.
It’s no surprise that the Postal Service would be less than cooperative. As Byrne’s study reveals, many of the facilities were sold at less-than-market value, and it appears that the main beneficiary of most of the sales was the Postal Service’s real estate broker, CBRE. According to the records obtained by Byrne, “The total assessed value of the CBRE's portfolio of 52 postal properties before it was sold was $232 million. CBRE sold the entire portfolio for $166 million.” Yet CBRE has made millions in commissions off these sales.
Byrne summarizes his findings in an extremely informative report entitled Going Postal: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband sells post offices to his friends, cheap. Byrne tells a damning story about conflicts of interest and other shenanigans involving postal officials and the real estate company run by Richard Blum, husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. It’s well worth reading. There's a Kindle Edition available on Amazon.com, but you don't need a Kindle to read it; you can access it on any PC, Mac or tablet. There's also a good excerpt from the report in the East Bay Express, here.
Through a FOIA request, Byrne obtained a list of 52 USPS properties sold by CBRE over the past three years, and he gathered CBRE invoices for commission payments on nearly all of these properties (many of which are here). Many of the sales have been reported in the press, another key source of information about the sales.
October 24, 2013
Yesterday the Postal Service gave the Postal Regulatory Commission a copy of the Household Diary Study, the annual report on mail use and attitudes. The study says this about how people are using their post office:
"In spite of a declining frequency of visits over the past five years, the use of post offices for mailing services continues to dominate the mail service industry. Sixty percent of all U.S. households patronize a post office at least once a month, while just 11 percent visit a private mailing company. Over 28 percent of all households in the U.S. visit the post office three or more times a month. Even with the continued availability of mailrelated products and services through alternative modes (such as Internet orders), in-person visits to postal facilities remain strong."
One might think that with so many people patronizing their post office, the Postal Service would be more interested in preserving its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices. Instead, we have POStPlan, the initiative to eliminate postmasters and reduce hours at 13,000 small post offices.
The implementation of POStPlan is past halfway. The Postal Service provides bi-monthly lists of where POStPlan has been implemented; the source page is here, the merged list is here, and an article about the implementation, here. The Postal Service website also has a page where all the POStPlan meetings are listed on a week-by-week basis, which you can find here. We’ve merged all the lists into one big list on Google docs, here, along with a map.
The list of meetings indicates that as of today, the Postal Service has held over 8,400 meetings to talk over POStPlan options with each community; another hundred or so are scheduled for the coming weeks.
Of the total of around 8500 meetings, about 4,500 took place in a town hall, church, or similar location; the other 4,000 took place in the post office itself. Most of the POStPlan offices are small, so in many cases the folks at the meeting had to stand in a crowded little lobby area.
The meetings have been scheduled in the afternoon and evening; very few were in the morning. About 3,400 began sometime between noon and 4 p.m.; 3,000, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and 2,000, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. That means that in three out of four towns, people who work during the day were unable to attend.
There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of news reports about these meetings. They tell the same story. The Postal Service representative, usually the postmaster in the APO (administrative post office) or someone from the district headquarters, explains how falling mail volumes and revenues have made it necessary to look for cost-cutting moves.
The small group gathered in the post office lobby or a town hall is told that they have four options. Three involve closing the post office — have the mail delivered to your house, use another post office, or find a local business that wants to sell stamps and perhaps other postal products. The fourth is to keep the post office open at reduced hours. Naturally, in virtually every case, the community has chosen reduced hours. The news reports often cheer this result, with headlines like “post office saved” and “post office not closing.”
That outcome was easy to predict, but the Postal Service nonetheless went through the process of sending out questionnaires and holding meetings in thousands and thousands of small towns across the country. The goal was obviously not to give people an opportunity to decide something. Reducing the hours was the only viable alternative.
One has to wonder, then, why the Postal Service has invested so much time and expense in holding all these meetings. They weren't required by any laws or regulations. Why bother when the outcome was a foregone conclusion?
October 23, 2013
The Postal Service closed the Atlantic Street post office in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 20, 2013, on two-days’ notice to customers. A USPS press release dated September 18 explains that the closure was due to the fact that the Postal Service was advancing with the sale of the building but had not yet been able to arrange a new location for its retail operation. A few weeks later the Postal Service changed its story and revealed that the closure was due to an emergency suspension because of unsafe building conditions.
The shift in explanations about why the Atlantic Street post office closed raises concerns about the credibility of the Postal Service regarding what happened in Stamford. That credibility will soon be on the line in two venues: In U.S. District Court, where the sale of the historic building is currently being challenged , and before the Postal Regulatory Commission, where an appeal on the the closure of the post office was submitted during the government shutdown.
The issues involved in the legal fight to stop the sale of the building are complex. There's more on that story in this previous post.
The issues involved with the closure of the post office begin with a simple question: Why was the Stamford post office closed on September 20th?
The press release version
The USPS press release issued on September 18, 2013, is entitled “Stamford Post Office Building Sold Post Office Boxes to Move September 20th.” As the title indicates and as the press release proceeds to explain, the Postal Service had found a buyer for the building but "despite a diligent effort," it had been unable to find a suitable location for the new post office.
So for the short term, the press release explains, customers at the Atlantic Street Station will need to pick up their mail at the post office on West Avenue while the Postal Service continues to look for a new location. The press release says nothing about unsafe building conditions or an emergency suspension.
News reports about the closure explained that the post office had closed because Louis R. Cappelli, a White Plains developer, had bought the building and planned to convert it to housing and retail. He may also raze an addition on the 1916 building that was built in 1939, to make room for parking.
In documents filed in the U.S. District Court, the Postal Service says that the closing date for the purchase was to have been September 25, 2013, and on September 23, an official for the Postal Service signed off on the paperwork to transfer the deed.
The Postal Service first tried to sell the Atlantic Street post office in 1997, and it resumed its efforts in 2007, with Mr. Cappelli as the intended buyer, but that deal fell through.
In 2010, the Postal Service again went to work on selling the building, and it began by conducting a relocation procedure (under 39 CFR 241.4) in order to close the post office. A relocation process meant that once the building was sold, retail operations would be transferred elsewhere in downtown Stamford.
The regulatory requirements for a relocation are much less stringent than for a complete closure, so there was not a lot of opportunity for public participation. When the Postal Service decided to move forward on the sale of the building in 2012, it continued to say that it was just “relocating” the post office and it consequently did not do a full discontinuance procedure, which would have given the community much more opportunity to comment.
The Postal Service finalized a deal with Mr. Cappelli in December 2012. According to an affidavit submitted by the real estate broker involved with the deal, the sales agreement stated that the closing could take place as late as two years from date of execution, in order to give the Postal Service plenty of time to find a new location. That means the Postal Service could have been looking for a new location until December 2014.
At some point, however, and for reasons not yet made clear in court documents, the Postal Service and Mr. Cappelli agreed on September 25, 2013, as the closing date for the sale.
A week before the closing date, on Wednesday, September 18, the Postal Service posted a notice at the Stamford post office informing customers that the office would close on Friday, September 20. The notice, which is basically the press release, explains that the building had been sold and no new location had yet been arranged.