Public Comment

National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to Meet in Oakland on Sale of Historic Post Offices

By Margot Smith
Friday March 07, 2014 - 01:57:00 PM

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) will be meeting in Oakland on March 11, 2014, to hear testimony on the sale of historic post offices and its effect on communities, historic buildings and historic districts. The ACHP is an independent federal agency that promotes preservation and sustainable use of our nation’s historic resources and its members are appointed by President Obama.

The Council is required to develop and submit a plan to Congress by April 17, 2014 to make sure that the U.S. Postal Service follows the law in handling its historic buildings. The ACHP invited groups working on historic preservation to make presentations from 1:45-4:30 PM at the Dellums Federal Building, 1301 Clay Street, Oakland. The meeting is by invitation only, and not open to the public. However, the public may submit their concerns in writing. This will be the only meeting in California.

Members of the press should contact the ACHP Office of Communications. The Director is Susan Glimcher, Phone: 202-606-8648

ACHP is Required to Investigate the US Postal Service

The ACHP hearing is a result of the efforts of Congresswoman Barbara Lee in including two sections on the sale of historic post offices in the 2014 Appropriations Bill. It first notes that the USPS Inspector General is conducting an investigation into whether the Postal Service is complying with its statutory and regulatory requirements in the relocation of services, closure, and sale of historic post offices. The bill recommends that the USPS “suspend the sale of any historic post office” until the investigation is completed.

The US Postal Service is not complying with the Bills recommendation. David J. Brown, Executive Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stated that “by moving ahead with the sale of historic post offices across the country the Postal Service is blatantly ignoring this recommendation.”

The second section of the Appropriations Bill states that in 2012 the National Trust on Historic Preservation placed historic post office buildings on its list of America’s most endangered historic places and that “Although the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has been working with the United States Postal Service for almost two years to develop a consistent, transparent, consultative process to preserve these historic properties, no such comprehensive process has been forthcoming.”
The Appropriations Bill directs the ACHP to provide, within 90 days of enactment of this Act, a report on the action plan for ensuring USPS compliance with Section 106 responsibilities during the divestment of historically significant properties.

The Threat to our Cultural Heritage

The historic postal buildings now for sale by the USPS were built with public funds from 1776 through the 1940s. Over 1100 postal building are now in danger. Some already sold were abandoned and demolished. Among those for sale in California are postal buildings in Berkeley, San Rafael, Burlingame, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Glendale, La Jolla, and Redlands. Many communities oppose these sales not only for historic reasons but because their post office is in the heart of their downtown business areas and fulfills their business needs.

These historic post office buildings also house art that was created with public funds during the 1930s under the New Deal. Some of these artists are now well known and their art is valuable. When the art was funded, it was to be accessed by the public into perpetuity. When these postal buildings are sold, the art is closed off to the community. Although “private property” signs have gone up and the wrecking ball has fallen on some of these treasured buildings, there are many can yet be saved.

Local community groups working on saving historic post office buildings include the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, The Living New Deal, National New Deal Preservation Association, the Berkeley Historical Society, Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, the California State Historic Preservation Office, the Berkeley Post Office Defense, the Berkeley Gray Panthers, the La Jolly Historical Society and Save the Redlands Post Office. Working nationally are the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Post Office Collaborate, Communities and Postal Workers United, the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, and Save the Post Office.

Of concern is the USPS' shameless disposal of our heritage and ignoring the requirements for community input. In many cases they did not notify the community of the sales, did not comply with the General Services Administration regulations for preserving historic sites, misrepresented its actions as "relocations" instead of "closures," worked to change the National Environmental Protection Act rules to their advantage, sold to buyers who limit access to the art, and neglected and abandoned buildings.

Moreover, the USPS Office of the Inspector General found that their real estate practices in these sales may be corrupt. In a “Management Alert” memorandum issued on February 12, 2014, the USPS Inspector General identified “financial risks” to the Postal Service in its contract with the real estate firm CBRE. This Postal Service watchdog urged the USPS to “take steps to lessen the potential for CBRE to engage in transactions that create conflicts of interest.” CBRE “conflicts of interest could lead to financial loss to the Postal Service and decrease public trust” in the Postal Service.

USPS management disagrees with the recommendation of the Inspector General and refuses to reform its real estate practices.
The USPS claims that cuts to service and sales of historic town center properties are the result of their economic crisis. However, the agency has not sought other solutions to increase its income. It has not managed its property to increase income by maintaining and leasing it as good business practice would dictate. There are other services that could generate income such as the postal bank offered in previous years.

Preservation Options

The National Post Office Collaborate (NPOC) was successful in saving a postal building through legal action. It recently won a groundbreaking legal ruling in Connecticut when a preliminary injunction was issued against the sale of the historic Stamford Post Office. In a 39-page ruling, the United States District Court stated, “There is a strong public interest in ensuring the USPS complies with its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) obligations here and in any future sale of its other properties.” Just a few days ago, the Court decided that the NPOC public trust doctrine argument has merit. Oral arguments will be heard in May. Unfortunately, legal action is quite costly and funds must be raised to continue.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced legislation to modernize the U.S. Postal Service, save Saturday mail and repeal a crippling law responsible for 80 percent of the mail system’s funding woes. Community groups working to save the postal buildings and postal services are hoping that our California Senators Feinstein and Boxer will support this bill, and that it will go to the House of Representatives.