Adapting Postal Facilities to Support Community Resilience

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Last month the USPS Office of Inspector General issued a report about excess space at postal facilities.  Having identified nearly 400 properties with over 1.2 million square feet of unused space, the OIG recommended that the Postal Service look for ways to repurpose this space “to improve utilization of federal properties, lower the number of excess and underutilized properties, and improve the cost effectiveness and efficiency of the real estate portfolio.”

For the past year, a feasibility assessment at Carnegie Mellon University has been working on a similar challenge concerning excess space at post offices.  Entitled “Outposts for Community Resilience,” the project focuses on how to align excess postal space with community benefits and how to leverage the strategic location of postal facilities to support the needs of the places where they are located.  

Led by Executive Fellow Andrew Butcher, a team of interdisciplinary graduate students and faculty advisors have been exploring the central question: “How can postal networks and underutilized postal facilities be envisioned as civic community hubs?”  

The project has been assessing how to use post offices and other post facilities as locations for place-based community development activities.  These include a range of smart and connected technologies such as distributed energy generation and storage; food and health services access; nodes for broadband or wireless internet; air quality sensors, and even traffic and road condition analysis.  

Butcher and his team have produced a white paper entitled “Postal Facilities — Platforms for Community Resilience” aligning concepts for facility reuse with Pittsburgh’s Resilience Strategy.  (See the full white paper here.)  

Photo: Sai Prateek Narayan, Homewood Finance Station, Pittsburgh, PA 15208, suspended in July 2013

As the paper’s executive summary explains, “The objective of this investigation was to establish a conceptual framework and preliminary recommendations for where and how USPS facilities can incorporate a series of programmatic and physical modifications to address community needs in vulnerable places — without disrupting core postal services.”  

While last month’s OIG report focused only on USPS-owned properties, the Carnegie Mellon project encompasses the entire real estate portfolio — over 25,000 leased properties as well as about 8,500 USPS-owned properties.  

One of the White Paper’s significant distinctions is its focus on leased, multi-unit facilities in locations vulnerable to emergency suspension or permanent discontinuation as ideal candidates to incorporate complimentary services to increase revenue, foot traffic, and operational viability.  

Using the City of Pittsburgh as a case study, Butcher and his team have targeted multi-tenant buildings in zip codes with high poverty indicators, declining population, and/or low broadband capacity.  This work yielded a list of priority locations and helped identify postal facilities at risk of suspension or discontinuation.

Post office closures in vulnerable places can have a disproportionately negative effect on a community.  The project seeks to assemble “a menu of complimentary services” that could revitalize postal facilities and avoid closures, which cause unnecessary costs for both USPS and communities.  ​

In addition to the white paper, the project includes several other activities.  In the Spring of 2018, six students in the Public Policy and Management Program at Heinz College participated in a capstone project to initiate the project.  They researched potential linkages, mapped areas in the community that were identified as vulnerable, and brainstormed ideas to connect communities to the Postal Service.

A team of students also attended in the 2018 PostalVision 2020 Conference to present their findings.  In early 2019, the project is planning to hold its own “Places and Postal Forum,” which will engage stakeholders and “bridge a knowledge divide between postal domain experts and place-based, economic development expertise.”  (See the forum overview here.)

During spring 2019, the project will also manifest into an interdisciplinary course involving the Heinz College, The School of Architecture and The School of Design.  The course will serve as “an innovation lab to further hone concepts for facility repurposing with a particular focus on community commons and tactical urbanism.” (See the course description here.)

What started as an idea by Butcher — inspired by underutilized real estate — has turned into a contagion rippling through Carnegie Mellon University and inspiring the possibility of equipping postal facilities to better empower communities.  

For more information — and to get involved in the Places and Postal Forum — contact [email protected].