Tearing Down the House: The Selling of the Post Office


June 23, 2011

A few days ago, US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe compared the financial problems of the Postal Service to a fiscal failure abroad. “"Look what's going on in Greece,” he said. “There's nothing safe.”  The comparison between Greece and the Postal Service is apt, but not in the way the Postmaster General probably meant. 

The causes of the Greek mess are complex, but it’s easy to see how the crisis is being exploited.  Today’s New York Times has an article titled “Some Greeks Fear Government Is Selling Nation.”  It’s about how Greece is being forced to adopt an austerity program requiring it to auction off the country’s prime assets in a “fire sale of national patrimony.”  The "crown jewels of Greece’s socialist state” are now likely to go to the highest bidder—the ports, the telephone company, the railway system, and some prime Mediterranean real estate—even the postal system and maybe the Parthenon—all up for sale.  It won’t be long before wealthy investors from Germany and the other big European powers who are pushing austerity “end up purchasing the assets for a hefty discount.”

That’s pretty much what’s going on with our Postal Service.  It finds itself in a financial dilemma—due partly to circumstances beyond its control but also because of its own past decisions—that is now being used to justify a fire sale of some of our country’s great architectural treasures and a vast network of brick-and-mortar post offices.  The Postal Service is basically selling off its assets and privatizing itself.

Thousands of small rural and neighborhood post offices are being closed, and citizens (the Postal Service likes to call them “customers”) are told they should take advantage of one of the 70,000 alternative retail outlets the USPS has developed through partnerships with retailers like supermarkets and Office Depots. It won’t be long before the brick-and-mortar post office is just a memory.

The Postal Service has also been selling off some amazing historic post offices. For many years now, it has been moving its mail processing centers from large downtown post offices to annexes in the suburbs, leaving millions of square feet of prime office space unused.  That’s now being used to justify the sale of beautiful New Deal post offices in Greenwich CT, Westport CT, and Palm Beach FL, and other historic post offices like those in Elizabeth City NC, Joliet IL, and York PA.  Here we are in the middle of a real estate slump, and the buildings are sold cheap, with wealthy developers turning them into high-end clothing stores, real estate offices, and a bag company.

The Postal Service may be getting a quick infusion of cash, but it's a buyer's market. The post office in Wesptort CT was appraised at $3.6 million, but it sold on May 18 for $2.35 million.  The post office in Modesto CA, which must be worth millions, went up for auction in early June, but as of June 15, only one bid had been placed—for the minimum $100,000.  The post office in Palm Beach FL was listed at $5 million but sold for $3.725 million.  The buyer was real estate mogul Jeff Greene, who commented, "“You always want to get a good deal." 

While it's the Postal Service that's selling the post offices, it's we the people who paid to build them and it's we who own them.  Maybe we should be getting a better deal too.

Perhaps someone can explain how the nation could build 1,100 beautiful post offices in the middle of the Great Depression yet can’t afford to maintain its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices today.  It’s simply madness to destroy these centers of community and to sell off a legacy that’s taken so long to build up.  As an ancient Greek saying goes, “God does not tear down men's homes, he ruins their minds and they tear them down themselves."

(Photo credits: Parthenon; Greenwich p.o., sold; Norwich p.o., coming on the market; York p.o., for sale)

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