The Postal Service closed the Atlantic Street post office in Stamford, Connecticut, on September 20, 2013, on two-days’ notice to customers. A USPS press release dated September 18 explains that the closure was due to the fact that the Postal Service was advancing with the sale of the building but had not yet been able to arrange a new location for its retail operation. A few weeks later the Postal Service changed its story and revealed that the closure was due to an emergency suspension because of unsafe building conditions.
The shift in explanations about why the Atlantic Street post office closed raises concerns about the credibility of the Postal Service regarding what happened in Stamford. That credibility will soon be on the line in two venues: In U.S. District Court, where the sale of the historic building is currently being challenged , and before the Postal Regulatory Commission, where an appeal on the the closure of the post office was submitted during the government shutdown.
The issues involved in the legal fight to stop the sale of the building are complex. There's more on that story in this previous post.
The issues involved with the closure of the post office begin with a simple question: Why was the Stamford post office closed on September 20th?
The press release version
The USPS press release issued on September 18, 2013, is entitled “Stamford Post Office Building Sold Post Office Boxes to Move September 20th.” As the title indicates and as the press release proceeds to explain, the Postal Service had found a buyer for the building but "despite a diligent effort," it had been unable to find a suitable location for the new post office.
So for the short term, the press release explains, customers at the Atlantic Street Station will need to pick up their mail at the post office on West Avenue while the Postal Service continues to look for a new location. The press release says nothing about unsafe building conditions or an emergency suspension.
News reports about the closure explained that the post office had closed because Louis R. Cappelli, a White Plains developer, had bought the building and planned to convert it to housing and retail. He may also raze an addition on the 1916 building that was built in 1939, to make room for parking.
In documents filed in the U.S. District Court, the Postal Service says that the closing date for the purchase was to have been September 25, 2013, and on September 23, an official for the Postal Service signed off on the paperwork to transfer the deed.
The Postal Service first tried to sell the Atlantic Street post office in 1997, and it resumed its efforts in 2007, with Mr. Cappelli as the intended buyer, but that deal fell through.
In 2010, the Postal Service again went to work on selling the building, and it began by conducting a relocation procedure (under 39 CFR 241.4) in order to close the post office. A relocation process meant that once the building was sold, retail operations would be transferred elsewhere in downtown Stamford.
The regulatory requirements for a relocation are much less stringent than for a complete closure, so there was not a lot of opportunity for public participation. When the Postal Service decided to move forward on the sale of the building in 2012, it continued to say that it was just “relocating” the post office and it consequently did not do a full discontinuance procedure, which would have given the community much more opportunity to comment.
The Postal Service finalized a deal with Mr. Cappelli in December 2012. According to an affidavit submitted by the real estate broker involved with the deal, the sales agreement stated that the closing could take place as late as two years from date of execution, in order to give the Postal Service plenty of time to find a new location. That means the Postal Service could have been looking for a new location until December 2014.
At some point, however, and for reasons not yet made clear in court documents, the Postal Service and Mr. Cappelli agreed on September 25, 2013, as the closing date for the sale.
A week before the closing date, on Wednesday, September 18, the Postal Service posted a notice at the Stamford post office informing customers that the office would close on Friday, September 20. The notice, which is basically the press release, explains that the building had been sold and no new location had yet been arranged.
The affidavit version
The sale of the building was immediately challenged in court by a Stamford resident and two organizations — the Center for Art and Mindfulness (CAM), which wants to buy the building itself and turn it into an arts-and-education center, and the National Post Office Collaborate, which is fighting the sale of historic post offices across the country.
On September 25, the plaintiffs filed an application for a temporary restraining order and a complaint claiming that in arranging the sale the Postal Service had violated NEPA, the NHPA, the Public Trust doctrine, and the federal regulations on post office closures.
About two weeks later, on October 10, the Postal Service responded with a number of documents challenging the allegations in the complaint. Included in the Postal Service’s response is the new explanation for why the post office closed. Rather than pointing to the impending sale of the building, the Postal Service now says the office was closed for the "unrelated decision" to suspend operations "due to health and safety concerns" associated with detoriating conditions in the building.
In an affidavit filed with the court, Stamford postmaster Jeffrey Salamon testifies that on August 30, 2013, he contacted USPS Safety Specialist Anthony Basso II to request a special safety inspection. Based on the results of the inspection report, which is dated September 4, and after consultation with USPS district officials in Connecticut and the Facilities Department, Mr. Salamon says he then “coordinated the move of all postal operations and employees out of the Atlantic Street Station. I supported this determination to protect the health and safety of postal employees at the Atlantic Street Station. On Friday, September 20, 2013, United States Postal Service moved out of the Atlantic Street Station.”
Mr. Basso has also filed an affidavit in which he states that he found conditions at the Atlantic Street post office “deplorable,” with many “potential risks to the safety and health of employees, including lead paint, plaster falling off the wall, no hot running water, and mold and mildew smell throughout the building.”
Mr. Basso’s report on the building is two and a half pages, and it contains several photographs as well. It lists about fifty problems, including cracks in the sidewalk, a crack in the steps, a rusting flag pole, an inoperative door, flaking paint, a hole in the roof (“possible birds nest”), a crumbling retaining wall, plaster falling off a ceiling, “a strong musty smell from mold and mildew” as one enters the basement stairwell, rust on the boiler room pipes, and mildew on the walls in an old coal room.
Aside from the list of problems, Mr. Basso’s report says nothing about conditions being “deplorable” or “posing potential risks to the safety and health of employees,” the language used in his affidavit. The photographs he includes do not make conditions look particularly hazardous. The building, after all, is almost a hundred years old, so it’s no surprise there would be some flaking paint and plaster and a little mold and mildew in the basement.
Postmaster Salamon’s affidavit does not indicate on what date he and other postal officials determined that an emergency suspension would be necessary, nor does it indicate what exactly prompted the request for a safety inspection in the first place. It’s also not clear why the postmaster was asked to give testimony about the emergency suspension.
USPS Handbook 101, the Discontinuance Guide, which describes the procedures for declaring an emergency suspension, states that it’s the District Manager who is responsible for suspending the operations at a post office. The postmaster, along with the Discontinuance Coordinator, the MPOO or designee, and a representative from the Facility Services Office, belongs to the suspension review team, but the postmaster is not responsible for declaring an emergency suspension.
The District Manager for the Connecticut Valley is Kimberly Peters, and one assumes that she would have been the person to declare the emergency suspension, but she has not filed an affidavit and her name is not mentioned in court documents.
The court documents do contain another affidavit of interest, however. This one is from Cece Saunders, president of Historical Perspectives Inc. Her firm was asked to inspect the post office and verify the information in the documentation submitted for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1997. Ms. Saunders did a site inspection dated October 6, 2013, just a few days after the office was suspended for unsafe conditions. While obviously not intended as a safety inspection, Ms. Saunders' report says that "the building has been properly managed with active electrical service and air flow." She also notes that the foundation, exterior walls, and roof are all "intact." Ms. Saunders says nothing to suggest the conditions were "deplorable."
Two stories, many questions
Until more becomes known about what happened in Stamford, the Postal Service's conflicting explanations for why the post office closed raise a number of questions:
Given that the closing date on the sale was just a few weeks away and the building was about to change hands, why did the postmaster request a safety inspection at the end of August? Was it his idea, or did someone tell him to do so?
Why was the request for an inspection considered so urgent that the safety inspector arrived just four days after being contacted by the postmaster?
Considering that the building is a hundred years old, had conditions deteriorated so rapidly that the situation developed into an emergency? Were any efforts made to remediate these conditions as an alternative to closing the post office completely?
Why did the Postal Service declare an emergency suspension a week before the building was going to change hands anyway?
If the Postal Service had not declared an emergency suspension, would the post office have remained opened after the building was transferred to Mr. Cappelli? Had an arrangement been made to lease back space so the post office could remain in operation on a temporary basis?
If the sales agreement gave the Postal Service until December 2014 to find a new location for retail services, why did the Postal Service agree to a September 25, 2013, closing date when it had not found a new location?
When did the parties agree on the September 25, 2013, closing date? It was probably months earlier, so why wait until a week before to announce the closing of the post office?
Why did the Postal Service tell the public and the media that the post office was closing because of the sale rather than explaining that there was an emergency suspension due to unsafe conditions?
Perhaps some of these questions will be addressed during the legal proceedings taking place in the District Court and in the appeal filed with the PRC.
The PRC appeal
The appeal to the PRC was submitted by attorney Drew Backstrand on September 30, but due to the government shutdown, it wasn’t officially posted until October 17. The appeal includes an Application for Suspension of Determination, a document often filed with appeals that asks the Commission to direct the Postal Service not to close the post office while the appeal is being reviewed. The appeal and application do not mention an emergency suspension, so presumably as of September 30, Mr. Backstrand had not yet learned of the new explanation for the closing.
The Postal Service will probably file a Motion to Dismiss the appeal and reject the application for suspension any day now. It will probably argue that the post office cannot be reopened because of the unsafe conditions and that the appeal is “premature” because the Postal Service has not issued a Final Determination to discontinue the Stamford post office — it has only issued an emergency suspension, which cannot be appealed.
The Postal Service may also tell the Commission that it has no plans to discontinue the Stamford post office anyway. It is only planning to “relocate” the retail operation, and it has simply not found the new location yet. Relocations, the Postal Service may argue, cannot be appealed either.
That explanation should be of some concern to the Commission. The PRC has dismissed appeals on several post office closures because they were deemed “relocations,” not “discontinuances,” and in some of those cases, like Berkeley and the Bronx, the Postal Service had not identified the new location. That made the relocation look suspiciously like a closure, but the Commission nonetheless dismissed the appeals because it considers relocations outside its jurisdiction.
However, in its order dismissing the recent appeal on the relocation of the historic post office in Berkeley, which also involves a new location “yet-to-be-determined,” the Commission did state the following: “Future events could make cessation of retail operations at the Berkeley MPO ripe for Commission review. Without information on when the Berkeley MPO will close, and where and when the replacement facility will begin operations as a post office, any appeal is premature. Such information would be relevant in determining whether the Postal Service’s actions represent a relocation or closing.”
In other words, should a post office close with no replacement office in operation, the planned relocation could be considered a discontinuance and hence “ripe” for appeal. That seemed to be what was happening in Stamford — at least until the Postal Service revealed that the post office closed not as a relocation but as an emergency suspension.
It will be up to the Postal Service to explain all this to the District Court and the Commission. In the meantime, we’re left with two conflicting explanations for why the Stamford post office closed, and neither of them is very satisfactory.
If the closing was for a relocation, why didn’t the Postal Service just wait until the new location was set up? The deal on the sale gave the Postal Service until the end of 2014 to find a new location. What was the rush? And since the September 25 deadline had to be known for months in advance, why close on two-days' notice?
If the office closed for an emergency suspension due to unsafe conditions, why did it happen just before the building was to change hands? Why close operations just five days before disposing of the building?
What happened in Stamford raises lots of questions. Hopefully we'll soon get some answers.
UPDATE, Oct. 28, 2013: Today the Postal Service filed a motion to dismiss the appeal and opposing the application for suspension of the final determination. As anticipated, the Postal Service argues that the post office has been subject to an emegency suspension so the appeal is premature. The Postal Service includes as exhibits an internal document dated Oct. 1, 2013, in which the District Manager declares the emergency suspension, and an Oct. 18 letter to customers informing of the suspension. The motion explains that the Postal Service had simply made an error in saying the closure was due to the sale of the building rathe rather than the suspension. The motion to dismiss also explains that the Postal Service had made a lease arrangement with the new owner to remain in the building for another 30 months.
The new details in the motion to dismiss raise a few more questions. The letter to customers with the correct explanation for the closure is dated Oct. 18, but the Postal Service says it posted it at the post office on Oct. 11. Is is typical to postdate official notifications like that?
Why did it take from Sept. 18 to Oct. 11 to inform customers of the correct reason for the suspension?
The postmaster closed the post office on Sept. 20, but the District Manager's order suspending the office is dated ten days later, and it says the postmaster was notified on Sept. 24. Why was the office closed before the postmaster was officially notified and before the emergency suspension document was signed by the DM?
The Motion to Dismiss does not address the fact that the closing on the sale was to have occurred on Sept. 25. Why is the coincidence of the closing date and the emergency suspension not addressed?
(Photo credits: Atlantic Street station entrance; lobby, from Historical Perspctives report; cracked step and flaky ceiling, from safety inspector's report)