Historic Post Offices
March 19, 2013
Five large post offices in New York may be closed over the coming months. Most likely, retail services will be relocated to smaller spaces in the neighborhood, and several hundred letter carriers who work out of the back of the buildings will be transferred to other postal facilities.
The closures would have a dramatic impact on their communities, and the Postal Service is coming under pressure from elected officials and historic preservationists to reconsider its plans.
The Postal Service has asked to be put on the agenda at the regular meeting of the Manhattan Borough Board so that it can discuss the situation for several Manhattan post offices. The meeting is open to the public, and it will be held on Thursday, March 21, at 8:30 a.m., One Centre Street, 19th Floor.
Here’s a status report on where things stand with these five post offices.
Bronx General Post Office
The historic post office at 558 Grand Concourse in the Bronx (10451) is heading for closure and sale. Built in 1936, the post office contains several priceless murals by Ben Shahn, who worked with Diego Rivera on the controversial mural that was removed from Rockefeller Center. The Postal Service says it plans to relocate retail services to a smaller location in the community (maybe even in the same building) and to sell the historic structure.
As reported by David Cruz in the Bronx Times, the asking price for the Bronx GPO is $14 million. It’s about seven blocks from the new Yankee Stadium, so it’s in a prime location for repurposing as a big retail center.
The process has been moving along very quickly. The Postal Service informed Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz on Dec. 31 of its intentions to sell the post office and relocate postal services. A 30-day comment period on the proposed relocation then began, either on Jan. 28, when the notice was posted at the post office, or on Feb. 6, the day of the public meeting. Turnout at the meeting was sparse because people were at work and the notification was poor, so Community Board 4 asked for an evening hearing with the Postal Service, but the request was declined.
The comment period ended on March 5. The Postal Service sent a letter, dated March 14, to the Bronx Borough President saying that it had made a final decision to relocate retail services. The letter states simply, "Upon further assessment and review, the Postal Service has made a determination to proceed with the relocation of retail services. In the near future, we plan to advertise for an existing building in which to relocate the post office. Plans also include marketing the sale of the property." (The letter is here.)
The community has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Postal Service. Requests for an appeal are supposed to be sent to the Vice President of Facilities at the Postal Service, probably the same person who made the final decision.
The process on the Bronx GPO has gone a lot faster than the Postal Service said it would. In a news item dated Feb. 1, 2013, the Postal Service said, “A final decision will be made in about three months after the agency meets with local officials and residents of the 10451 zip code area, which this branch serves.” Instead, it took about six weeks.
In fact, the Postal Service has gone through the process about as quickly as the law allows. According to CFR 241.4, the federal regulations governing relocation of post office, the Postal Service must wait at least 15 days after the date of the public meeting or receipt of the written comments before making a final decision. Depending on how one figures things, the Postal Service may not have even waited that long. It certainly didn't waste any time before coming to a final decision.
The Bronx GPO is on the National Register of Historic Places, so the Postal Service must also comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The Postal Service maintains that the Section 106 requirements don’t apply to the “relocation” of a post office to elsewhere in the community, so the agency doesn’t have to follow these procedures until it is ready to dispose of the building. The National Trust and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation take a different view of the question, but the disagreement remains unresolved at this time.
For more about the Bronx post office, follow David Cruz's articles for the Bronx Times, and check out the excellent article by David W. Dunlap in the New York Times. For more about the threat to historic post offices across the country, see this great piece by Robin Pogrebin, also in a recent issue of the Times.
Old Chelsea Station
The Postal Service is also planning to sell the Old Chelsea Station at 217 West 18th Street (10011). Built in 1935, it was listed on the National Register in 1989, and it contains two New Deal bas relief murals done by Woodstock artist Paul Fiene.
As reported by Liza Bear for The Villager, a letter about the pending relocation was discovered pinned to the post office’s wall by an alert patron, who notified the media. The Postal Service also sent a letter to the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation notifying them of the pending sale, along with an explanation that the sale will have ‘no adverse affect’ on the building's historic value.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler, in whose district the post office is located, was not pleased about the notification process. "We should not learn of an impending sale and closure only through a letter to the state agency on Historic Preservation,” he said in a statement.
Elected officials first learned of the sale on January 11, and seven of them wrote the Postmaster General on February 6, complaining about the notification process and asking him “to examine all scenarios that would allow it to continue providing services at the site while repurposing the excess space that is no longer needed prior to moving forward with any proposal to sell the property.” (Their letter is here.)
The Postal Service decided to move forward on the sale and started the clock on a 60-day comment period, beginning February 19. The same elected officials wrote a second time to the Postmaster General, "expressing their outrage that the public comment period began without any direct communication to the public from USPS regarding its plans and the process for public engagement, either in an official release to the community or at a public meeting.”
The letter also called on the Postal Service to restart the public comment period, but the Postal Service has not responded to this request, so the comment period is slated to end on April 19.
Elected officials have also written to the Chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee, asking that the Old Chelsea post office be granted landmark status: “Given the substantial threat to this historically significant building posed by any change in occupancy, we respectfully request that the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) initiate an evaluation of the building and favorably consider it for designation as an Individual Landmark.” (Their letter is here.)
The Postal Service will hold a public meeting about the Old Chelsea Post Office on April 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Fulton Center Auditorium, 119 Ninth Avenue (between 17th and 18th Streets). There's more about the latest on the Old Chelsea post office here.
March 6, 2013
On Monday, the Postal Service announced that “it is considering plans” to sell the historic post office in Derby, Connecticut. Such a sale requires a formal review process, and the Postal Service has taken the first steps in that process by informing city officials and the public of its plans.
The process involves a fairly complicated legal procedure, and it will take some time, at least a couple of months, before a final decision is made and the building is actually put up for sale. That’s why it comes as something of a surprise to see the Derby post office already listed on the "USPS Properties for Sale" website.
A done deal from the get-go
The USPS press release about the sale says that the Postal Service plans to relocate the letter carriers to another facility, rendering the 12,000 square feet in the post office unnecessary. It will then either rent space back in the building from the new owner or look for another location. (Even though the new post office may be in the same building, the Postal Service says in a letter to the city that it will offer the community “an upgraded, modern facility that will provide the level expected by our customers.”)
The press release also says that postal officials have already met with the mayor of Derby, Anthony Staffieri. It looks as though the mayor has already given his approval. Staffieri is quoted as saying, “This underutilized building can be sold for retail/commercial space and add to our tax base downtown.”
There’s nothing in the press release about the fact that the Derby post office was built in 1932 and that it is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
Before selling an historic property like this, the Postal Service is required to go through a review-and-consultation process, as described in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).
But the Postal Service and its exclusive real estate partner, CBRE, are not wasting any time. The Derby post office is already listed for sale — and has been for at least a few weeks — on the USPS-CBRE Properties for Sale website. It’s described as “coming soon,” “list price to be determined,” and “Historic property, eligible for NRHP.”
It would seem that the decision to sell the Derby post office is a done deal. The only problem is that it may be against the law.
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 annual compliance report 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.
January 10, 2013
BY GRAY BRECHIN
The National Academy of Public Administration has released a “Work-in-Progress” report entitled "Restructuring the U.S. Postal System: The Case for a Hybrid Public-Private Postal System." The Academy is now embarking on a study of this proposal, which would privatize a large portion of the country's postal system.
The Academy's study is billed as an “Independent Review of a Thought Leader Proposal to Reform the U.S. Postal Service.” Unfortunately, no study conducted by a four-man panel chaired by David M. Walker, the former President and CEO of the libertarian Peter G. Peterson Foundation, can seriously claim either the independence or non-partisan objectivity that the Academy itself boasts.
It has been my experience over the past 30 years that "hybrid public-private partnerships" are often little more than a sedative euphemism for the private sector taking the profits while the public bears the costs. Such is the case with this "reform,” which will, as is so often claimed in such instances, "unleash the power of market forces" by transferring the USPS profit centers to the private sector while saddling the public with the cost for "the last mile." Meanwhile, the public is already being stripped of its assets in broad daylight while the media sleeps.
The proposal is predictably one-dimensional — as befits men who seemingly have little or no sense of the public service mission for which the Post Office was created 238 years ago under the direction of Benjamin Franklin. Its purpose, then as now, was democracy and equality, not efficiency or profit. Thus, the report omits much.
Nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of unions, let alone of living wages, so one can only presume that a primary means of reducing costs will be to drive down the income of those postal employees who remain after the USPS is radically downsized and diminished as proposed.
The report also simplistically states that "the root cause of the postal crisis is the historic change in how we communicate," omitting other forces now undermining it such as Congress itself. Nor does it mention the invaluable artistic, historic, social, environmental, and commercial function of many post offices currently being thrown onto the market with virtually no oversight. It neglects to say that a commercial real estate firm (CBRE) chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, is profiting from the sale of properties paid for by taxpayers for well over a century.
Finally, there is no serious discussion of alternatives characteristically described in such reports as “out of the box” for making the USPS solvent again, such as reviving the U.S. Postal Savings Bank and providing other public services currently available outside this country. That is because the self-proclaimed thought leaders who framed the report do not actually seek to save the Postal Service but to “reform” it virtually out of existence.
My studies of the New Deal have revealed an ethos of public service that seems entirely alien not only to the men who produced the Academy’s blueprint but to current postal management as well as to those in Congress who saddled the USPS with fiscal obligations seemingly designed to eliminate it as a competitor to private carriers, a goal long sought by those very carriers and by the libertarian think tanks they lavishly fund.
Several WPA-built structures here in California bear an inscription by the Roman poet Virgil: "THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD." The Academy’s preliminary report contains nothing noble or new. Quite the contrary, it is yet more of the same demonstrably failed neoliberal experiment that has, over the past three decades, so disastrously despoiled the U.S. economy as it has demoralized our citizens.
Unleashing the power of market forces did not work so well in 1929 or in 2008, and it will not do so again as those very forces seek to finish off the public sector as a competitor once and for all.
Dr. Gray Brechin is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. He is the founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal Project based at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography. He works with others to stop the sale of the National Register-listed Berkeley Post Office.
June 14, 2012
Last week the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office Building to its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The historic post office faces an “uncertain future,” observes the National Trust in its press release. The Postal Service has been closing post offices at an unprecedented pace, announcing one downsizing plan after another, and selling off its properties. At least forty historic post offices have been sold or put on the market in the past year.
Among the Trust's main concerns is the way the Postal Service has been handling the sell-off. "The lack of a transparent and uniform national process from the Postal Service — one that follows federal preservation laws when considering disposal of these buildings — is needlessly placing the future of many historic post office buildings in doubt," says the Trust. Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, says she hopes to work with the Postal Service to develop a process for adapting and reusing the historic buildings.
Asked about the announcement from the National Trust, USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan told the Associated Press — in an article that appeared in over a hundred news outlets — that of the 31,500 post offices nationwide, only 55 are officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That didn’t sound right, so I contacted Ms. Brennan. She explained that the number 55 probably referred to how many National Register post offices were among the 3,700 post offices being studied for closure last year, and she graciously provided a very thorough USPS list that inventories all the Postal Service’s historic post offices.
As it turns out, about 440 currently operating post offices are on the National Register, and as many as 1,800 others are eligible for the Register. Here are a list and a map of the 440, complete with photos and links to more information, like the National Register nomination documents. More tables and maps are listed at the end of this post.
The Postal Service’s Real Estate
The Postal Service is obviously having cash flow problems, and it clearly likes to poor mouth when it suits its purposes. But its deficit problem is primarily and unnecessarily caused by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), which requires the Postal Service to pay $5.6 billion annually into a fund for the health care of future retirees. The payments aren't just for retirees. They were mandated by Congress so it could avoid refunding overpayments to the postal pension fund, which would have added to the federal deficit.
The Postal Service isn't really going broke. It's actually incredibly wealthy. If you ignore the health care prepayments, it is basically breaking even, in spite of the weak economy and diversion to the Internet. (For FY2012 year-to-date, the loss is $275 million, about 0.7% of revenues.) The Postal Service generates $65 billion in annual revenues, and it is sitting on a mountain of assets — 8,600 properties, 214,000 vehicles, $326 billion in retirement funds, and much else, like intellectual property and an experienced, knowledgeable workforce. No one knows how much the Postal Service is worth.
The Postal Service has not released any numbers about the value of its real estate holdings, and it may not even know the total itself. According to an OIG report issued last year, the Postal Service does not maintain fair market or assessed tax value records for its properties. It does, however, keep track of purchase prices, and in its 2011 fiscal summary, the Postal Service reported holding over $24 billion (in purchase price) for property such as buildings and land. The OIG figured that the assets were worth at least twice that due to appreciation, but on its books, the Postal Service goes the other way and depreciates them by half.
A significant portion of the Postal Service’s $25 to $50 billion in real estate resides in just a few buildings, like large processing plants, which can be worth $50 or $100 million a piece, sometimes more. According to the OIG’s report, L’Enfant Plaza is probably worth $115 million.
On today’s market, a typical post office can go for anywhere between a half million dollars to several million, as you can see on the USPS Properties for Sale website. This site, by the way, is the product of a partnership between the Postal Service and CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate firm, which is now handling sales and leases.
Figuring a rough average of a million dollars per post office, the 2,200 historic properties could be worth something like $2 billion.
Even if the Postal Service were to sell every one of these treasures, it wouldn’t add up to one annual payment to the retiree health care fund, which could be eliminated by a simple act of Congress. That means Congress must ultimately bear responsibility for the dismantling of the country's rich legacy of historic post offices.