New Deal Post Offices
July 3, 2012
The Postal Service has been actively selling off historic post office buildings for over a year now. About forty have been sold or put up for sale. They’re scattered around the country, but for some reason more than a third of them are in California.
The Berkeley post office was built during a period when many believed architectural beautification could bring harmony to urban living, explains Gray Brechin, UC-Berkeley geography professor and founder of the Living New Deal. “The federal government went to special lengths to give Berkeley one of the handsomest postal facilities in the state and possibly the nation,” says Brechin. “It represents the high idealism of the City Beautiful Movement.”
Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism, and rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off. What’s going on in California is one of the main reasons the National Trust named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.
Historic post offices are highly prized by their communities. They anchor the downtown area, help local businesses, enable people to walk to the post office, and elicit pride of place. People may complain about the long lines, but they love their grand old post office.
If something doesn’t stop the sell-off, it looks as though the Postal Service is prepared to dispose of all 2,200 of the country’s historic post offices. Postal officials seem to think that this legacy belongs to them, to do with as they please. They forget that these post offices are the property of the American people. They seem unaware of the magnitude of the crime they're committing.
The Postal Service says it needs the money these sales bring in, and the old buildings cost too much to maintain, especially when a lot of space is underutilized. But the sales bring in a relatively small amount of money in the context of the USPS budget, the maintenance costs are less than the rent the Postal Service pays on the replacement post office, and the underused space is the Postal Service's own fault. Rather than making the most of the downtown location, the Postal Service moves letter carriers to other locations (which also cost money to lease or maintain), so that the mail processing that used to go on in the back now goes on somewhere else, leaving just the retail services in the building.
The explanations offered by the Postal Service disguise what's really going on. The Postal Service is selling off its properties because divestiture of assets, along with outsourcing, is one of the main steps in the process of privatization. The plans have been in the works for a long time. Back in 1998, President Reagan's Commission on Privatization recommended selling off "obsolete buildings in central business districts" — historic downtown post offices — to help move the Postal Service toward privatization. You can read all about it in the Commission's report, "Privatization: Toward More Effective Government" (pp. 122-125).
California has fourteen historic post offices that have been sold, put on the market, or planned for sale — the most of any state in the country. Connecticut is number two, with five (most of them in the “Gold Coast” area around Westport). Several other states have one or two.
One might assume that so many historic post offices are being sold in California because the state has an unusual number of them, but that explanation doesn't hold up. California ranks fifth in terms of how many historic posts offices it possesses, 106. New York is number one (with 238); Pennsylvania, second (182); then come Illinois (170) and Ohio (126). Yet these states have only one or two historic post offices for sale.
Of California's approximately 1,800 post offices, the Postal Service owns around 600. Using fifty years old as a rule of thumb for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, over a hundred California post offices are eligible and 24 are currently on the Register. (A list of California’s historic post offices is here, a map here, and a spreadsheet showing how post offices and historic buildings break down state-by-state, here.)
Percentage-wise, California is not at all unusual in the number of historic post offices it possesses. About 6 percent of the state’s post offices are historic, which ranks California 29th. By contrast, in the New England states, about 13 percent of the post offices are historic.
There must be another reason why the state is seeing so many sales compared to other states. One possible explanation is that postal management in the Pacific District is simply being more aggressive about selling post offices than other districts, perhaps to please postal headquarters back east. It’s also possible that the California post offices are among the country’s most valuable, and the Postal Service wants to work on the big-ticket items first. That would also explain why it sold off the post offices in Connecticut’s Gold Coast and Palm Beach, Florida. Or maybe the Postal Service is just starting the divestiture process on the West Coast, intending to work its way east, so it’s only a matter of time before other states suffer their share of the damage.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
October 30, 2011
On Monday of this week, Ruth Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), will be speaking in Venice, California, at a meeting of the Venice Post Office Task Force. The subject of the meeting: the fate of the Venice Main Post Office, a beautiful example of New Deal architecture, which the Postal Service has decided to close and sell, a decision now being appealed before the PRC. The Postal Service has been selling off historic post offices right and left, and it’s really a crime, but no one can stop it.
For Goldway, the trip to Venice will be something of a homecoming, and she probably knows the Venice post office well. Though born and raised in New York City, Goldway lived in southern California for over two decades. During the 1970s, she worked in California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and from 1979 to 1983, she was a council member and mayor of Santa Monica, which borders Venice. She subsequently worked in Los Angeles at California State University and the Getty Trust. Unfortunately, it seems that Goldway's history with Venice has made it necessary for her to recuse herself from the appeals case.
The Venice post office was built in 1939 by Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration. It’s a beautiful building, and it contains a prized New Deal mural, “First Thirty Years of Venice’s History," by Edward Biberman, a California Modernist whose work appears in the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery. The mural features Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney, surrounded by the town he created.
Normally when the Postal Service wants to close a post office, it has to go through a formal discontinuance process that gives the community an opportunity to express its concerns. But in this case, the Postal Service says it’s under no legal obligation to go through that process because the “post office” is not really “closing” — it’s just being “relocated" to a carrier annex.
Tell that to the citizens of Venice. They know a closing when they see one, and they know that closing the Venice post office will do irreparable harm to their community. They’ve protested to Postal Service officials, formed a task force to organize their efforts, and filed an appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission.
The case for the appeal argues that community deserves the full discontinuance procedure because the post office is, for all intents and purposes, closing. The building will be sold, and the new retail facility in the annex is very small compared to the one at the historic post office. The brief submitted by James Smith on behalf of the Free Venice Beachhead newspaper describes the post office very nicely and explains how vital it is to the community:
“The [Venice Main Post Office] VMPO was a Works Project Administration building that includes a cornerstone dated 1939. Thus this historic building has been at the center of Venice community life for 72 years. It is located on the central plaza in the center of the main commercial district of the town. It is constantly busy with postal customers arriving on foot, by bicycle and auto. There is no busier building in the Venice community. Generations of Venetians have patronized this building on a regular basis throughout their lives. Upon climbing the stairs or handicap-accessible ramp, they entered an attractive lobby with a deep wood finish. Their eyes automatically turn to the beautiful and well-preserved “Story of Venice” mural by artist Edward Biberman on the south wall. The mural was painted in 1941 by the famous artist, and is his last surviving mural. It is seen by hundreds of people per day, thanks to its position in the post office lobby. The aesthetic charm of the building, and the museum-quality art in the lobby, is beloved by this community which is filled with artists, poets, muralists and connoisseurs of art. The character of the Venice community as an arts haven means that the blow to the community of losing both the building and the mural is far greater than it would have been if it were a nondescript building that was bereft of art.”
September 14, 2011
The Wall Street Journal has a report today about how the Postal Service is in the process of selling off its historic post offices. Maybe someone at the Journal has been reading "Save the Post Office." We've been bemoaning the sale of these historic post offices for months now, and there have been stories in the Guardian in the UK and Liberation in France, so it’s nice to see the American press finally taking note of this travesty. Since the WSJ is subscription only, here’s the gist, with a few additional details. For more, check out our pages on the New Deal post offices and on other historic post offices that have been sold or may be sold soon.
Most post offices are housed in leased spaces, but the Postal Service owns about 8,000 post offices, as well as a thousand empty lots and modular buildings. Some 2,500 of these post offices are either on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible to be listed due to their historical significance. About 2,000 of them were constructed before World War II, and a thousand of them were built by the New Deal in the years 1933 to 1943.
The New Deal post offices are among the jewels of the nation’s architectural treasures, and it’s a crime against the American people that they are being sold off so shamelessly by the government agency entrusted with protecting them. (That's not in the WSJ article.) Paid for with tax dollars and owned by the people of the country, these federal buildings are now being sold to the highest bidder and turned into real estate offices, restaurants, high-end clothing stores, and the showroom for a bag company.
According to Dallan Wordekemper, Postal Service historian, about 800 of the New Deal post offices contain priceless sculptures and murals, often prized more than the buildings themselves. Although often mistakenly identified as WPA murals, they were produced under the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The Postal Service makes an effort to protect the murals, but there have been horror stories about murals gone missing and discovered years later in the basement somewhere. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)
The Postal Service has already sold $140 million in post offices and other property so far in fiscal year 2011, according to ubiquitous USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan. As the Journal reports, “Postal officials say it's unclear how many of these historically significant post offices will be sold, but many communities are already starting to see the for-sale signs go up. ” The article cites several that have been discussed in blog posts on this website: Palm Beach FL, Westport CT, Pinehurst NC, Northfield MN, Cheraw SC, and Venice CA.
The two lists of post offices being studied for closure — the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) list of 3,652 and the non-RAOI list of 727 more — contain over fifty post offices built before 1945. But there are many more historic post offices in danger that aren’t showing up on closing lists. That’s because the Postal Service can sell a post office building, as it did in Palm Beach FL or Westport CT, and then move the post office to another location. That does not count as a “closing,” and the Postal Service does not need to go through the normal closure process. There is nothing stopping the Postal Service from selling off all 2,500 of its historic post offices. Absolutely nothing. (None of that is in the WSJ article.)
If you want a better sense of just how insane this whole thing is, consider Palm Beach, Florida, where the Postal Service, as the WSJ reports, sold a magnificent New Deal post office to real-estate mogul Jeff Greene for $3.7 million. Greene, if the name's not familiar, is "the Reluctant Billionaire" who somehow figured out how to make $800 million trading the credit default swaps that helped plunge the country into recession. He ran for the Senate in Florida, but didn't get past the primary. An admirer of the Palm Beach post office since he was a kid, Greene appreciates the lobby's "wonderful woodwork and marble, and ornate elements," his architect tells us. When renovations are completed, the building will become home to Greene's real estate company — Florida Sunshine Investments. The Postal Service, in the meantime, has moved the post office to a strip mall where it’s renting space and reportedly paying — get this — $10,000 a month. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)