ACHP to report on disposal of historic post offices this week; the sales go on

April 13, 2014

On Thursday of this week, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is expected to release a report on the Postal Service’s compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act when it disposes of historic post offices. 

The Council was directed to prepare this report by a provision in the annual appropriations bill passed by Congress earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of Representatives Barbara Lee of California and José Serrano of the Bronx.  The provision reads as follows (p. 75): 

Last year, the National Trust on Historic Preservation placed historic post office buildings on its list of most endangered historic places. The Committee  [on Appropriations] is concerned that although the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has been working with the United States Postal Service for almost two years to develop a consistent, transparent, consultative process to preserve these historic properties, no such comprehensive process has been forthcoming.  The Committee directs the Council to provide, within 90 days of enactment of this Act, a report on the action plan for ensuring USPS compliance with Section 106 responsibilities during the divestment of historically significant properties. 

Representatives Serrano and Lee also succeeded in getting a second provision added to the bill.  This one expresses similar concern over the sale of historic post offices and says that  the Postal Service “should refrain” from relocating postal operations out of historic post offices and "suspend the sale" of any historic property until the Office of Inspector General completes an audit investigation on the disposal and preservation of historic post offices (p. 75).  

That audit, which began last summer, is due out soon, but the Postal Service isn't waiting to hear the results, despite the urging of Congress to refrain.  Over the past few weeks, it has proceeded with the sale of several historic buildings, including those in Burlingame, California, Somerville, Massachusetts, and Princeton, New Jersey.  The Postal Service and the prospective buyer are also moving forward on the deal to sell and redevelop the post office in Stamford, Connecticut, despite the fact that the sale has been stopped by a federal court.  Here’s a rundown of the latest developments.


The ACHP meeting in Oakland

The Advisory Council held a meeting in Oakland on March 11 to hear from agencies and organizations about their experiences dealing with the Postal Service on sales of historic post offices.  Among those who spoke to the ACHP panel were staff members from Representative Barbara Lee's office, the California SHPO, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Living New Deal, the LA Conservancy, and Save the Berkeley Post Office.

Here are some of the written statements submitted to the ACHP:

As part of her testimony, Jacquelyn McCormick also submitted comments from the Stamford Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program.  Yours truly, Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office, has also submitted a report he wrote for the USPS OIG's audit on the preservation and disposal of historic post offices.

One of the main issues that comes up repeatedly in the comments is that the Postal Service has not been forthcoming about its plans, both in general and in the case of individual post offices.  The National Trust has requested a list of historic post offices under consideration for sale and received nothing.  No one even knows how many post offices may eventually be sold.

The L.A. Conservancy’s website says that over one hundred post offices in California have been slated for closure or “relocation” in California.  Not all of them are historic, but considering that the Postal Service owns 600 post offices in California and nearly 9,000 nationwide, at that rate we could be talking about 1,500 sales, with 300 or 400 of them being historic post offices.

Individual communities have had an equally hard time getting information from the Postal Service.  Rather than cooperating with communities, the Postal Service seems to think it can do whatever it wants.  For example, the La Jolla Historical Society said that its efforts to get involved with purchasing the post office were stymied at every step, even with members of Congress trying to help. 

Several of the speakers also complained about the covenants that the Postal Service has been creating to protect the murals after the building is sold.  The covenants offer inadequate protection and have various other deficiencies, and they need to be individualized for each case (rather than the one-size-fits-all boilerplate used by the Postal Service).  

The ACHP report that comes out this week will probably discuss these and many other problems in the disposal process.  Whether it will do any good is another question.  

Exposed: Are Senator Feinstein and Her Cronies Looting the U.S. Post Office?

March 25, 2014 has a story about Peter Byrne's expose about the sale of historic post offices.  It begins like this: 

Good criminals don’t leave calling cards at the crime scene: they cover their tracks. In the hit movie Ocean’s Eleven, a group of cunning thieves meticulously organize and pull off the heist of a Las Vegas casino. Now, some of America’s most cunning and powerful real-life individuals may have pulled off a major heist of the 21st century – the systematic pillaging of the U.S. Postal Service and its assets.

Our cast of characters includes California senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein; her UC Regent husband Richard Blum, who is the president of Blum Capital and chairman of the board for CB Richard Ellis (CBRE), the largest commercial real estate developer in the world; and Tom Samra, the multi-millionaire chief of the U.S. Postal Service’s facilities management division.

After a crime, good investigators sift through the available facts to make a case for what happened — facts that clearly don’t pass the smell test, but don’t fit neatly together, either. The facts below, many of which emerged from investigative journalist Peter Byrne’s 94-page book Going Postal (2013), raise serious ethical and legal questions about a spate of transactions that enriched all three individuals at the expense of the U.S. Post Office’s survival.  Read more.

Watchdog criticizes Postal Service for lack of ‘arm’s length’ real estate deals

February 20, 2014

Washington Post: "The U.S. Postal Service is putting itself at financial risk by allowing an outside real estate firm to negotiate sales and leases of postal property on behalf of the mail agency and prospective buyers and renters at the same time, a watchdog warned Wednesday.

"The practice, called “dual agency representation,” has the potential to create conflicts of interest for CB Richard Ellis, with the result that the real estate company might not maximize revenue for the financially ailing Postal Service.

“CBRE conflicts of interest could lead to financial loss to the Postal Service and decrease public trust in the Postal Service’s brand,” the Postal Service Inspector General’s office said Wednesday in a “management alert” that strongly recommends that the arrangement be scrapped."   Read more.


USPS Environmental Assessment on historic Stamford post office runs into problems

February 17, 2014

There have been several new developments in the story of the historic Stamford post office.  Last week, the Postal Service filed a status report with the PRC about its search for a new location, and earlier this month, the USPS filed papers in federal court opposing the complaint that has held up its sale of the building to Westchester developer Louis Cappelli. 

In addition, attorneys for the National Post Office Collaborate, one of the parties that filed the complaint, have responded to the Postal Service’s Environmental Assessment on the property with a scathing critique.  They say the EA is "procedurally and substantively defective in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the USPS’s own guidelines."

At this point, it looks as though the lawsuit and the future of the Stamford post office are a long way from being resolved.  Here’s a rundown on these latest developments.


The search for a new location

The Postal Service’s status report on the emergency suspension was filed on February 14, as directed by the PRC’s order dismissing the appeal, which was issued at the end of January.  The Postal Service says that it has been working since September to find a new location for the post office, and it has its eye on a couple of possibilities. 

It’s clear from the status report that the Postal Service has no intention of reopening retail operations at the current location.  That was pretty clear back on September 20, when the Postal Service closed the Stamford post office on two days’ notice.  What's less clear is why the post office closed to begin with. 

When the Postal Service gave notice in September that the post office would be closing in a couple of days, it explained that the building was being sold (the closing date was supposed to take place the following week) and no new location had yet been arranged.  A couple of weeks later, however, after the lawsuit was filed to stop the sale, the Postal Service came up another explanation — the post office was put under emergency suspension due to unsafe conditions in the building, discovered on a safety inspection in early September. 

Both explanations seemed dubious.  There was a provision in the sales agreement allowing the Postal Service to remain in the building after the sale, so why would the pending sale necessitate suspending operations?  The condition of the building has been deteriorating for years, and most of the problems are in parts of the building that aren't even used, so why close the post office suddenly over saftey issues?  And what prompted an inspection less than a month before the building was to be sold?  These questions remain unanswered.  

In any case, finding a new location for the post office has turned out to be something of a problem.  It's not very easy finding space in downtown Stamford, where rents are high and parking is at a premium.  The Postal Service may have started the search for a location in earnest back in September, but it has known since 2009 that it would eventually need a new location, and it still hasn’t found one.  

The PRC will probably keep its eye on the progress toward opening a new location.  If the Postal Service does not open a facility elsewhere in Stamford, the appeal, which was dismissed "without prejudice," will probably be resubmitted on the grounds that the suspension was actually a de facto discontinuance.

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