The Selling of the Venice Post Office: More than a touch of evil

February 15, 2012

BY GRETA COBAR

Venice Beach, California, is an idyllic, bohemian, beach-side community that was once home to The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and Beat generation poets Stuart Perkoff and John Haag.  Today it still embraces alternative lifestyles and artists and performers who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else.  

The town's romantic archiecture, beaches, and piers have also attracted many filmmakers, and Venice has been the backdrop of several movies, like "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", "Heat," and "The Net."  The famous opening title sequence in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was shot in Venice back in the fifties.

Also known as Venice of America, the city was founded in 1905 by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney, who re-created the Italian sister city’s architecture, canals, a lagoon with gondolas, the whole bit.  After its annexation by the city of Los Angeles in 1925, Venice saw many of its historical buildings, canals, and lagoon destroyed.  What survived is now considered to be the number one tourist destination in Southern California.

In the center of town majestically sits the Post Office, a 1939 Works Projects Administration building.  It houses the 1941 “Story of Venice” mural by Edward Biberman, a renowned California painter.  The beautiful, well-preserved mural depicts Abbot Kinney and his vision of Venice, as well as the oil wells and the destruction that followed annexation.

Truly the heart of the community, as all roads lead to it much like all arteries lead to the heart, the priceless post office building is now going to be sold.  Citizens and local organizations voiced their objections to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), but they were ignored. Venice residents and community associations then filed an official appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) asking for a hearing, but the PRC granted the USPS motion to dismiss the appeal.

At issue with the PRC was the USPS claim that the closing of the Venice post office was essentially a “relocation,” because services will be moved to what is currently the USPS Annex, located 400 feet away.  The appeal argued that the closing of the Venice post office should be considered a formal discontinuance, entitled to a full closure process, including a hearing before the PRC.  The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, is a Venice resident, so she chose to recuse herself from the vote because the case involved her own neighborhood.  The other three members of the PRC unanimously voted in favor of USPS’s decision to dismiss the appeal.

The plan now is to combine postal retail services with the mail sorting activities currently taking place in the Annex, and to sell the historic post office building.

Community input to the USPS has centered on selling the Annex instead, which could fetch three times more money than the beautiful post office building.  Venice mail sorting operations could easily fit into the basement of the current post office, and sorting operations for all other neighborhoods could move to other, less expensive locations.

It seems as if the effort to privatize the Postal Service by selling off post offices is spearheaded not just by the owners of private shipping organizations, but by USPS higher-ups as well.  Even the Public Representative of the USPS supported the dismissal of the appeal, even though the community is overwhelmingly united and outspoken against such action.

Aside from implementing cuts and closures that can only diminish revenue, the USPS has been intentionally suppressing revenue at the Venice branch.  For example, on January 22, when the price of stamps increased from 44 to 45 cents, the Venice post office did not have one cent stamps for sale.  It consistently has had only a limited selection of stamps, which is a major deterrent to stamp collectors and picky customers.

Furthermore, for the past two years only two of the five windows have been open for customer service regardless of the length of the line or the waiting time.  The USPS’s own provision to provide service in less than 20 minutes has been ignored on a daily, hourly basis.  Overworked clerks have to constantly deal with frustrated customers, which only contributes to their poor morale.

The retail facilities planned for the Annex consist of only two service windows, fewer parking spots for customers and employees, and significantly less mail sorting space in a facility that, according to current Venice postal employees, is already overcrowded.  In addition, the neighborhood surrounding the Annex is strictly residential, and the establishment of retail operations would have a negative environmental impact in a coastal zone that has not been addressed or considered.

Bill Maher, press spokesperson for the USPS, told Venice residents that the local post office has historical status, which proved to be untrue, as federal buildings are ineligible for such status.  Locals are now trying to place the building on the National List of Historical Buildings, which would not stop the USPS from selling it, but would prevent the buyer from tearing it down.  Public access to the building and the mural cannot be guaranteed, though, if the sale does proceed.

Los Angeles has a poor history of historical preservation.  The covenants attached to the sale of historic downtown hotels have easily been broken in recent years.  In addition, a Biberman mural removed from the downtown post office has disappeared and has not been found since.  In the mid 1980s Biberman himself embarked on a mission to find his displaced mural, to no avail.

The Venice community has been extremely outspoken and active in its efforts to save the post office. Two very successful rallies took place, attended by the likes of Bill Rosendahl, District Councilperson, and Debra Padilla, Executive Director of The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), alongside dozens of community members and activists.

A third rally is planned for February 18, 2 to 4 p.m., in front of the post office.  Thousands of petition signatures have been collected in the neighborhood and online at www.change.org (search Venice Post Office to sign).  For the latest updates or to just show that you "like" our efforts, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/savethevenicepostoffice.

Many local organizations and politicians have come together to stop the sale.  They include the Free Venice Beachhead, SPARC, Venice Arts Council, Venice Chamber of Commerce, Venice Neighborhood Council, Venice Peace and Freedom Party, Venice Stakeholders Association, Venice Town Council, Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, Edward Biberman Estate, New Deal Preservation Association, Los Angeles Conservancy, Council member Bill Rosendahl and Congressperson Janice Hahn.

Just like many other communities across the country, Venice is heart-broken to lose its post office.  Public outcry continues, the local paper covers the topic in its every edition (www.freevenice.org), and we are still collecting petition signatures.  Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that has been representing us pro bono thus far, is currently assessing the possibility of a legal challenge before deciding whether it will continue to represent us.

Let’s not allow one of our oldest government institutions — with its strong labor unions ensuring good wages for workers and a network of post offices that benefit the poor, disabled, rural residents — to be dismantled in ways that favor big, private business.  Contact your Congress representatives and urge them to support H.R.1351 and S.1853, which would ease the requirement that the USPS pre-fund the health benefits of employees for the next 75 years in a ten-year period and would refund $18 billion of overpayments (and that’s aside from $75 billion the USPS has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System).

The USPS is a self-sufficient federal business that private shipping companies want destroyed.  Let’s not allow our politicians to be bought out this time as well.

(To contact Greta Cobar, email gretathegreat99@aim.com.)

(Photo credits: Venice post office; town center with p.o.; mural; 1910 postcard of Venice arcade; "Touch of Evil."  More on the Venice story here.)

Reuters gets it right: "Special Report: Towns go dark with post office closings"

February 14, 2012

There’s an excellent article on post office closings in Reuters today, by Cezary Podkul and Emily Stephenson.  One of its main themes is that while the Postal Service is claiming that the Internet is driving people away from traditional mail, many of the post offices slated for closure are in rural areas where there’s limited or no wired broadband Internet available. 

The article also questions whether the harsh impact on citizens is worth the small amount the Postal Service will save by the closings — about four-tenths of one percent of the Postal Service's annual expenses of $70 billion.

"That's a drop in the bucket," said William Henderson, who served as Postmaster General from 1998 to 2001.  "That's not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won't ripple."

Accompanying the article is a terrific interactive map that allows users to click on a post office location and get all sorts of useful information, like population, broadband availability, and even whether UPS and FedEx have a surcharge for delivering to the area. 

Check out this article.  It’s one of the best that’s appeared in the mainstream media about post office closings, and the map is a very valuable tool.  Here's a video about the report.  (if it's not showing up, please refresh your browser.)

The spin doctors examine Post Office financials for Q1: “The patient is a goner”

February 10, 2012

This week the Postal Service released its financial report on the first quarter of fiscal year 2012 (Form 10-Q).  As you might have expected, it’s all bad news — that is, according to the Postal Service, the mainstream media, and Congressional postal experts.  The spin doctors tell us the patient is in critical condition and radical surgery is necessary.  Let them amputate a few limbs and remove some organs, and they’ll get the patient back on its foot in no time.

The truth of the matter is that the Postal Service actually ran a profit during the first quarter.  If the economy continues to improve, the prognosis will be just fine, and the Post Office will soon be on the road to recovery.  But the spin doctors have a different story to tell.

 

The Spin

“More red ink at post office: Quarterly loss of $3.3B as agency struggles to avoid bankruptcy,” proclaims the Washington Post

“Postal Service Loss Widens to $3.3 Billion,” says the Wall Street Journal

“U.S. Postal Service Loses $3.3 Billion, Warns of Cash Drain,” announces Bloomberg News.

"The longer the Postal Service remains in a weak position, the more damage can be done to our business," says Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett.  "We need to change and get back to a point where we're financially stable so that our customers and our suppliers have faith in us."

“The U.S. Postal Service ended the first three months of its 2012 fiscal year (Oct. 1 - Dec. 31, 2011) with a net loss of $3.3 billion,” states the USPS press release.  “Management expects large losses to continue until the Postal Service has implemented its network re-design and down-sizing and has restructured its healthcare program.” 

“While the situation facing the Postal Service is dire,” says Senator Tom Carper, “it is not hopeless. That is why we need to pass this bipartisan and comprehensive bill as soon as possible.  It is my hope that Congress and the Administration can come together on this plan in order to save the Postal Service before it’s too late.”

With postal management, the media, and legislators like Carper all telling us that the Postal Service is hemorrhaging money and about to fall into a coma, it’s no wonder people are ready for whatever solutions our leaders can come up with. 

But the fact of the matter is that it’s all just spin.  The only thing endangering the Post Office right now is postal management and Congress. 

And the winner is . . . Trump selected to redevelop DC’s Old Post Office

February 7, 2012

The General Services Administration has selected Donald Trump to redevelop the Old Post Office building in downtown D.C.  The grand old icon is going to be converted into a luxury hotel, complete with “world renowned restaurants, a spa and conference facilities.”

The GSA says turning the building over to private hands will save the federal government millions of dollars in maintenance.  “The tremendous response from the private sector allowed us to select a proposal that will provide a consistent revenue stream for the Federal Government and better utilize a historic property on our nation’s best Main Street,” said Robert Peck, the GSA’s Public Buildings Service Commissioner.

The sale of yet another historic federal building goes hand-in-hand with the selling off of historic post offices that we’ve been witnessing.  The Postal Service is engaged in “divestiture” — a stage in the privatization process that involves selling off government assets to private companies.  The Postal Service has enlisted the help of the world's largest real estate firm, CRB Ellis, to help sell its properties, and the new USPS-CRBE website lists 78 of them.  There are probably many more USPS properties for, but the Postal Service refuses to release a list of them. 

Over the past few months, the Postal Service has sold New Deal post offices in Westport, Connecticut; Palm Beach, Florida; Ukiah, California; and Pinehurst, North Carolina.  Over the coming months, the same will happen to the post offices in Venice and La Jolla, California; Northfield, Minnesota; Athens, Pennsylvania; and Camas, Washington.

DC’s Old Post Office is not in the same category as these other historic post offices, since it’s not owned by the Postal Service and it hasn’t been an operating post office for decades.  But the push to sell off federal assets, whether they’re under the auspices of the Postal Service, the GSA, or another government agency, is troubling.  Many of these assets are valuable historic buildings that belong to the people of the United States.  Once they’re converted to things like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and clothing boutiques, they’re no longer in the public realm and they’re off-limits, except to the privileged few.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed something called the Civilian Property Realignment Act (H.R. 1734), which will accelerate the sale of high-value, “underutilized,” federal properties.  “The purpose of 1734 is to actually shrink the size of government,” explained Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), one of the bill’s sponsors. If the bill gets through the Senate and signed into law, the legislation would prompt a massive sell-off of $500 million in government-owned real estate over the next three months. The sale of the Old Post Office is a prime example of what the bill aims to expedite. 

When construction was completed in 1899, the Old Post Office was the largest office building in D.C., the first to incorporate a steel frame in the city, the first federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the first government building to have its own power plant.  “Opening ceremonies,” says Wikipedia, “were marred when the postmaster of Washington fell to his death down an elevator shaft.”

In the 1930s, a new post office was built directly across 12TH Street, and the Old Post Office building was almost razed, but there wasn’t enough money around because of the Depression.  For the next 40 years, it was used as an overflow space for several government agencies.  With no agency responsible for it, the building fell into decay, and in the 1970s, it was almost destroyed again, but historic preservations came to the rescue and got funding for some renovation work. 

The building now houses the offices of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  They’ll all be moving out soon to make room for Trump’s new luxury hotel. 

Hopefully, things will work out better for this Trump enterprise.  Others have not been so successful.  Back in the early 1990s, two of Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey — the Taj Mahal and the Trump Plaza Hotel — went bankrupt. 

When sales of units in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago started to lag, the lender, Deutsche Bank, ended up in court for refusing to let Trump lower the prices to spur sales.  In court papers, Deutsche Bank observed that "Trump is no stranger to overdue debt" and noted that he had twice previously filed for bankruptcy regarding his casino operations.  Trump didn’t like that one bit, and he initiated a suit asserting that his image had been damaged.  

Trump has caused endless controversy in New York with his projects, like the Trump SoHo, an out-of-scale 46-story monstrosity located in an historic neighborhood where most of the buildings are about six-to-ten stories.  There have been suits and counter-suits between the architects and developers over design problems, and several condo-buyers filed a suit claiming they were lied to about how well the units were selling.

The Old Post Office is located at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, about five blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The new Trump hotel will be as close as the Donald ever gets to the White House.

UPDATE (Feb. 9, 2011): Looks like Donald's plans may be in for a bumpy ride.  D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton "isn't ready to celebrate" the GSA's decision.  According to the Washington Business Journal, she says the project is fraught with potential complications that could put an end to the deal before it ever starts.

(Photo credits: The Old Post Office;  the OPO with Trump International logo; the Donald; the Trump SoHo.)

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