The U.S. Postal is facing an annual loss of as much as $18.2 billion due in large part to a Congressional mandate to pre-fund their retiree health benefits. In an attempt to achieve solvency, the U.S. Postal is considering a number of options, including closing or selling off post offices in those locations where the real estate is most valuable. Ideally, every post office would be able to retain the postal functions that are so important to local residents, but there are many viable reuse options for these prominent historic buildings. For those buildings that must be sold and put to new uses, the U.S. Postal Service needs to define and implement a clear process that allows for full public participation, protects the historic buildings in its inventory, and prioritizes reuse plans that allow these buildings to remain active and accessible to the public.
Local post office buildings have traditionally played an essential role in the lives of millions of Americans. Many are architecturally distinctive, prominently located, and cherished as civic icons in communities across the country. Unless the U.S. Postal Service establishes a clear, consistent process that follows federal preservation law when considering disposal of these buildings, a significant part of the nation’s architectural heritage will be at risk.
- Work directly with the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies to develop a consistent, public process that follows established federal preservation law and protects those historic post office buildings identified for closure or sale.
- Promote and support successful advocacy campaigns for saving post offices around the country.
- Identify and encourage sensitive and appropriate reuses for post office buildings.
- Support policy and legal solutions that encourage the preservation and reuse of post offices nationwide.
Ways To Help
Demolition is forever. Help save Napa's post office building from the wrecking ball!
Last August, a magnitude-6.0 earthquake damaged the historic Franklin Station post office in downtown Napa, California, forcing its closure. Now the U.S. Postal Service has announced its intention to tear it down as a cost-saving measure, against the wishes of the City of Napa and many of its citizens.
Despite widespread interest in the building’s preservation, USPS has thus far been set on razing it. If the USPS cannot afford the repairs, then it should engage residents and private developers in a plan that would reuse it.
Built in 1933, Franklin Station is one of only a handful of Art Deco post offices in California and one of the most flamboyantly decorated—earning it a place on the National Register of Historic Places and in the hearts of Napa residents.
If you agree, add your name TODAY to our letter to the Postmaster General, Megan J. Brennan to ensure the strong call for preservation is heard. On July 31, we will also share all signatures to the letter with the USPS consultant, Julia Mates to make sure your voice is counted in the process.
Thank you for helping make a difference!
By Brian Turner, Senior Field Officer and Attorney, San Francisco Field Office
There is good news to report from the federal courthouse in San Francisco on our campaign to protect America’s Historic Post Offices. Two related lawsuits filed last fall by the National Trust and the City of Berkeley have successfully forced the U.S. Postal Service to set aside its plans for the sale of the historic Berkeley Post Office. As a result, at least in the near term, the Postal Service is committed to retaining retail services in the iconic building in the heart of Berkeley’s Civic Center Historic District.
At the hearing before federal district judge William Alsup at the end of March, the Postal Service tried to reassure the judge that it would proceed to sell the building, but the agency was reluctant to formally rescind its final decision authorizing the sale, including final approvals under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). But the judge insisted that the Postal Service could not “have it both ways,” and he gave the Postal Service one week to follow up with formal confirmation that its decision was rescinded. Only on that condition was the court willing to dismiss the case as moot. The door is clearly left open for the City and the National Trust to bring a new legal action if a future proposed sale of the historic Berkeley Post Office does not comply with federal law.
The Postal Service attempted to dodge the issue of whether it would reopen its compliance under NEPA and Section 106, but the court’s April 14 order keeps the Postal Service on an unusually short leash—maintaining jurisdiction over the matter for five years, and mandating a 42-day notice to the City and the National Trust prior to closing on any future contract for sale, or approving any future relocation of postal services in Berkeley, in order to enable the parties to renew their lawsuits in time to seek an injunction if necessary.
In Judge Alsup’s nine page order, he recognized that the National Trust and City of Berkeley had valid concerns against the USPS, but dismissed the case without addressing the merits of their arguments, that is, whether or not USPS failed to comply with NEPA and Section 106 of the NHPA prior to entering into a sales contract. Since the court explicitly recognized that the Postal Service will have to “go through the process all over again” in the future, which could include a different preservation covenant and a different approach to NEPA review, it would have been an impermissible “advisory opinion,” (i.e., an academic question), for the court to address whether the terms of the now-defunct deal violate the requirements of Section 106 and NEPA.
However, many of the issues are likely to recur if Berkeley or another historic post office sale is challenged in the future. For example, the National Trust and the City were especially concerned about the Postal Service’s argument that it should be exempt from all lawsuits under the Administrative Procedure Act, which belies longstanding precedent, and would essentially make all environmental review by the USPS unreviewable in the federal courts.
One of the Judge’s rationales for dismissal was his doubt that the building will be sold under present conditions. In anticipation of the sale, the City of Berkeley passed a zoning overlay, which limits potential future uses of the post office building. Permissible uses for the property include libraries; judicial courts; museums; parks and playgrounds; public safety and emergency services; government agencies and institutions; public schools/educational facilities; non-profit cultural, arts, environmental, community service and historic organizations; live performance theatre; and a public market. The Judge remarked that the ordinance will “substantially shrink the possible universe of purchasers or alternative users for the building, making it ever more unlikely that the controversy will ever rise from the dead.”
But, in case it does, the Judge also provided both plaintiffs important protections. In a highly unusual move, the judge retained jurisdiction over the case for the next five years in the event that USPS once again attempts to put the building up for sale and plaintiffs challenge the action. He also required that, if the Postal Service decides to sell the building or relocate postal services, it will provide 42 days notice to the plaintiffs.
By taking this issue to court the National Trust sent a strong message about our willingness to challenge federal agencies when their actions are insufficient to protect important historic places, like America’s post offices. We continue to be concerned about the process by which the Postal Service has been selling its historic buildings, and the inadequacy of its proposed preservation covenants. We will continue to press the Postal Service to strengthen the long-term protections on its historic properties prior to selling them in the private marketplace. The Postal Service now recognizes that our willingness to go to court to enforce federal preservation laws is not a bluff. We hope this has the effect of pushing the agency to do a better job in the future to comply with the NHPA by ensuring the long-term preservation of its historic post offices.
Today, the National Trust joined the City of Berkeley in a lawsuit against the United States Postal Service for failing to comply with federal historic preservation laws prior to entering into a contract for sale of the Berkeley Main Post Office building. The Trust issued this statement from its general counsel and chief preservation officer, Paul W. Edmondson.
To view the full statement, please see: "National Trust Joins City of Berkeley's Lawsuit Against US Postal Service."
To view the the legal filing, please see: "Case3:14 Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief"
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation issues a scathing assessment of USPS’ disposition process for historic post offices, along with a series of 15 recommendations for how they can improve that process. The National Trust, along with our partners the National Post Office Collaborate, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the City of Berkeley, and several others provided lengthy comments to the Advisory Council, many of which were integrated into the report issued on April 17. Check out our blog on the report, read the full ACHP report, or read about it in the LA Times.
Since June of 2012, when the Trust named Historic Post Offices to our 11 Most Endangered List and then announced that Historic Post Offices would be among the first places named to our portfolio of National Treasures, we have been working towards a fairly straightforward goal: a clear and consistent process that the Postal Service should use when transferring ownership of these iconic local buildings. While progress towards this goal has been slow, I am happy to report that the past few weeks have seen two promising developments.
If you’ve been following the closure and sale of post offices around the country in cities big and small, you know that one of our primary concerns about the Postal Service’s haphazard and inconsistent process is that they often fail to follow federal preservation and environmental laws regarding the disposition of historic buildings. Claiming they are not a federal agency and are therefore exempt from the laws, the Postal Service often does not consult with SHPOs, concerned citizens, elected officials, or other stakeholders, and the public is often does not find out about the potential sale of a beloved local historic post office until a decision to sell has already been made.
In a recent federal court ruling in Stamford, Connecticut, the court found that the Postal Service failed to comply with federal environmental law prior to selling the Stamford post office, and also neglected to fully consult with SHPO as to any adverse effects of a sale as required by NHPA. While the Postal Service has challenged the judge’s opinion, the case has opened the door to new requirements that could significantly improve the Postal Service’s process.
Equally promising is the recent legislative action on Capitol Hill that has potential to continue the positive momentum generated by the legal case. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Jose Serrano in (D-NY), two legislators who have landmark historic post offices for sale in their Congressional districts, sponsored the addition of language to the recently passed appropriations bill that directed the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to develop a plan for the disposition of post offices in the next 90 days. Additionally, the bill requested a moratorium on the sale of post offices until the ACHP develops its plan and the USPS Office of Inspector General releases its audit on the disposition process later this spring. Rep. Serrano was quoted in the Washington Post noting that the “language in the omnibus appropriations bill is clear: The USPS needs to put sales of historic post offices on hold while we wait to see what the inspector general’s report and the ACHP [Advisory Council on Historic Preservation] reports say.” The Advisory Council has already created a subcommittee to prepare a “Report on the United States Postal Service Section 106 Compliance for the Closure and Disposal of Post Offices,” which will submitted to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees on April 17th.
The other promising development was a meeting in DC between Trust legal staff and Postal Service representatives to discuss the potential for a pilot covenant program, in which the National Trust would consider holding covenants on up to 20 historic post office buildings across the country. This approach could help address the Postal Services’ problem of finding qualified covenant-holders for the post offices, while allowing the Trust to carefully monitor and protect the buildings long term, and manage any proposed changes as these important community buildings transition into new ownership and new uses.
We fully understand and appreciate the difficult financial straits in which the Postal Service finds itself, and their need to make tough decisions—including selling off historic post office buildings—to help right its financial ship. Rather than serving as a hindrance to this process, the Trust and our preservation allies have long tried to convince the Postal Service that we can play a constructive and cooperative role in it. We want to help the Postal Service adopt a clear and consistent process that attracts preservation-minded buyers and avoids the legal and bureaucratic snags that occur when the disposition process is inconsistent and haphazard.
By working more closely with the ACHP and OIG on the disposition of historic post offices, and by sitting down with Trust staff to discuss a possible plan around covenants, we are cautiously optimistic that the Postal Service might, finally, get the message that the preservation community can assist them find a better way forward as it continues to address its financial challenges.
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
I know it's hard to believe in this era of seemingly perpetual beltway gridlock, but a new Post Reform Act was introduced recently. It's called the Postal Reform Act of 2013, a.k.a. PRA and S.1486 and it was put forward by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The bill focuses on five sections for reform, including pension and health care reform, which are the major causes of USPS' massive and ever-expanding debt. But it also provides new opportunities for cost-savings and revenue-generation. If you're a major policy wonk and really want to dig into the details, Steve Hutkins of the fabulous Save the Post Office website reviewed the new Senate language and compared it to the earlier postal reform bill in a recent blog post.
While the new legislation has bi-partisan support and is likely to get some traction in both the House and Senate, it seems to include some concessions that could be worrisome: reducing the amount of time USPS needs to continue providing Saturday service, removing standards to ensure local access to post offices, and allowing for more centralized delivery methods. Most distressing to us, it removed a section that would have protected historic post office buildings by giving federal, state, and local governments the opportunity to lease excess space rather than having USPS close and sell the buildings. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that USPS seems to be having trouble selling many of their post offices, and recently turned over about a dozen to the General Services Administration (GSA) to auction for them.)
The good news is that the new Reform Act would place a moratorium on plant closings for two years. Sen. Carper’s summary of the bill also says the Act would “codify the Postal Service’s current plan to find savings in its retail operations without closing post offices.” Unfortunately, it’s not really clear what “codification” means, but the "without closing post offices" part is very promising. And the new Act also proposes expanding the range of factors the Postal Service must consider before closing a post office. Right now USPS has to consider the “effect on community” and “effect on employees.” That could be expanded to require them to consider the effect on local businesses, the extent to which the community has Internet access, the extent to which customers would have access to time-sensitive mail, the proximity of other post offices, and whether substantial economic savings to the Postal Service would result from the closing, all of which would be helpful to the disposition process and increasing public involvement. Of course, expanding the range of considerations isn't a magic bullet. The Postal Service can always say it “considered” these other factors and decided to close the post office anyway, which has been its MO until now.
As always, keep checking back here for the latest updates and goings-on in the world of historic post offices!
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
When you hear the words "historic post office," what usually comes to mind is a lovely, smallish 1930s-era building on an idyllic Main Street where neighbors run into each other as they drop off their letters. What doesn't come to mind is a 2.5 million square-foot building sitting astride a major expressway and a series of rail lines in downtown Chicago. But that's exactly what the "Old Chicago Post Office" is. This massive 1932 building processed millions of pieces of mail each day until 1997, when it was deemed too large and inefficient.
And so this mammoth post office sat vacant for years, waiting patiently for someone to come along with the right plan and enough money to bring it back to life. While a number of ideas have been proposed over the years--hotel, residential, mall, indoor water park, just to name a few--the Post Office's latest owner, British developer Bill Davies, and his architect, Joe Antunovich of Antunovich Associates, put together a very ambitious plan that includes rental housing, retail, and parking in the restored post office building, with even more rental, retail and office space in adjacent new buildings sited to take full advantage of the riverfront location. Whether this $1.5 billion plan will get off the ground is hard to tell, but it's cleared a major hurdle by getting the stamp of approval from the Chicago Plan Commission last week. For now, I'm just excited to see some feasible ideas on the table to revive one of the country's biggest historic post offices!
Tell us what you think of the proposed renovation of the Old Chicago Post Office, or share a story about your favorite renovated post office! And don't forget to check back here for the latest updates on our work to save historic post offices across the country.
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
When it rains it pours! Several opportunities have appeared this week for local advocates and concerned citizens to take action and help protect historic post offices. Please get involved and share this information with others who are concerned about USPS' sale of post offices across the country.
1. Public Meeting in Glendale, California - Just like with the Berkeley, La Jolla and Bronx Post Offices, USPS is proposing to relocate services from the gorgeous downtown Glendale post office. A public meeting will be held today (July 25th) at 6 p.m. Pacific Time in the City Council Chambers of Glendale City Hall, 613 East Broadway, Glendale, CA. For more information see the notice on the City of Glendale website.
2. Rally to Stop the Sale of the Bronx General Post Office, New York City - The Community-Labor United for Postal Jobs and Services (CLUPJS) is calling citizens to rally on Saturday, July 27th to tell USPS "Hands Office the Bronx GPO!" For more information or to join the rally, see the flyer or contact them directly at email@example.com.
3. Send Comments to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) - Spurred in part by the National Trust's listing of Post Offices as one of our 11 Most Endangered Places in 2012, the USPS Office of the Inspector General is now conducting an audit of the dispostion process. They are asking for comments from the public and want to know "Do you think the Postal Service follows proper procedures when disposing of historic buildings?" Now is your chance to tell USPS what you think! Submit you comments today and encourage others to do the same.
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
News arrived over the holiday from La Jolla, California, about the final decision to close and sell the downtown La Jolla post office. The La Jolla Historical Society, local supporters, and elected officials have been fighting for well over a year to protect their cherished post office, even offering options that would have allowed postal services to continue under a new owner. This kind of dedication raises an interesting question: Why are so many people so passionate about their local post offices? What does the post office-- and postal service--mean to us? A fascinating series of stories on re:sound about letters shed some light on these questions for me. They also made me think about the mail in an entirely new way... A letter is so much more than just a piece of paper in an envelope. It's a deeply personal and highly ritualized process of establishing a meaningful connection with other people. It's also a snapshot of a moment in time that captures who we are, our problems, our goals, and our dreams. It's no wonder that people place so much value on the mail! Take a listen to the re:sound stories and then tell us why the post office matters to you.
Don't forget to check back here often for more updates and info!
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
First of all, please don't miss the slideshow of new post office pix on the Historic Post Office page! While this National Treasure was first listed in 2012 with the Geneva, IL, post office as a "posterchild," NTHP has greatly expanded the scope of our work to tackle these issues around the country. We've added lovely images of some of the many places where we're working hand-in-hand with local groups and residents to help them preserve and protect their historic post offices.
Last month I reported that USPS had made an official decision regarding the massive (175,000 square feet) locally-landmarked Bronx General Post Office (GPO), issuing a letter saying that postal services would be relocated to a new as-yet-undertermined site in the Bronx. Determined to be too large for USPS purposes, the 1935 building, along with its collection of 13 Ben Shahn murals in the lobby (see this recent NYTimes blog for gorgeous photos of the murals), would be marketed for sale. In a detailed response penned by NTHP attorney Roberta Lane, the National Trust appealed USPS' decision on the grounds that it didn't comply with federal historic preservation regulations.
Many others passionately objected to the decision as well, including Bronx Burough President Ruben Diaz, several New York City Councilors, House Representatives Charlie Rangel, Eliot Engel and Jose Serrano, and the National Post Office Collaborative, an advocacy organization fighting the sale of Post Offices in New York and California. The letter from Borough President Diaz criticized USPS' process, saying he was "appalled that, despite requests for further community consultative processes...the United States Postal Service has seen fit to issue a final sale deterimination, rather than pursue engagement with community stakeholders, including elected officials." Tom Samra, VP of Facilities for USPS, was unfazed by the cries of opposition. He distributed his decision on June 7, in which he stated there was no basis to set aside the decision to relocation the Bronx Post Office and that "[w]hile the Postal Service is not insensitive to the impact of this decision on its customers and the Bronx community, the relocation of the Bronx GPO is in the best interest of the Postal Service."
However, USPS did recognize the National Trust's request to be a consulting party in the Section 106 process triggered by the Bronx relocation decision. They have invited us to comment on the covenant (a form of legal agreement) that USPS will put in place to protect the building under new ownership. Based on the correspondence that was shared with us, USPS has already been in consultation with the NY State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission about the Bronx GPO for many months. Both the SHPO and the Landmarks Commission have raised questions about the fate of the Shahn murals, since this artwork was commissioned specifically for the building and is currently unprotected by the local landmark designation. We expect to participate in a consultation meeting with USPS and others in the next 30 days, where we hope to get more details on USPS' plans to market the building and ensure that both the building and its treasure trove of artwork are protected in the public's interest.
And in case you haven't seen it yet, check out the new 10 on Tues blog "10 Ways to Fight for Your Post Office"! We've heard from so many people around the country who are frustrated with USPS' decisions to relocate, close, and/or sell post offices in their towns that we made this guide full of handy tips on how to get directly involved in the decision-making process. Take a look for yourself and share it with anyone you know cares about their historic local post office.
by Chris Morris, Project Manager
There is much to report on the Post Office front in the last few months. USPS continues to keep their plans for closures to themselves, but they have made decisions about some buildings. Within the last month they issued a notice that the massive Bronx General Post Office in New York City (at 588 Grand Councourse) will be "relocated" and sold, in spite of considerable protest from local and federal legislators in New York. For those of you not fluent in Post Office regulatory lingo, "relocation" means the post office functions will be placed into a new building somewhere else in the city and the post office building will be sold. The decision-making process for the Bronx PO appeared to be expedited, with USPS allowing only one daytime meeting to hear public comment before issuing their decision. The National Trust filed an official appeal of the Bronx decision with the USPS Facilities Director and we will continue to follow this one closely.
Long awaited news on the fate of the Berekely Main Post Office in Berkeley, CA, (at 2000 Allston Way) emerged as well. Well-organized public protests, considerable media coverage, public meetings at which hundreds of residents turned out to speak in opposition to the sale, and clear opposition from the Berkeley City Council were not effective in swaying USPS, which indicated they will relocate their services and sell the Berkeley PO. The Berkeley decision has taken much longer than that for the Bronx, allowing the National Trust to work closely with local citizens, advocacy groups and city staff to create a lengthy and detailed record of opposition to the USPS process. When the decision came down in late April, we joined the Berkeley City Council and others in filing an appeal. If USPS moves ahead with the sale, a group of local advocates is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit to challenge USPS' process.
USPS is selling these historic post office buildings in part as a response to their massive annual deficit, which is projected to top $18 billion next year. The Congressionally mandated prefunding of USPS retirees health care benefits contributes to much of that deficit. Hoping to address the underlying financial problems, Sen. Sanders of Vermont and Rep. DeFazio of Oregon introduced Post Office Modernization bills (HR 630 and S 316) in February that would rescind the mandate, maintain Saturday delivery, and allow the post office to exlore innovative new ways to generate revenue. Rep. DeFazio even created a public petition to encourage White House support for their legislation. If successful, this legislation could take much of the financial pressure off USPS and help put them back on a path to financial stability, which may eliminate the need to sell valuable post office real estate.
by Chris Morris, Senior Field Officer
If this project has taught me anything, it’s that our postal service is a massive operation with enormous obligations. Its service area is huge, with millions of individuals and businesses relying upon them daily to conduct transactions, pay bills, and just plain stay connected to the outside world. All of this is my way of saying that USPS is a giant bureaucracy with a lot on its plate. And saving historic post offices definitely isn’t at the top of their list of priorities. Their biggest concern was, and continues to be, the Congressional mandate to pre-funded retiree health benefits, which has left them with a $22 billion (and growing) debt.
In a desperate attempt to achieve solvency, USPS is looking at a number of options: asking Congress to remove or reduce the mandate, eliminating Saturday delivery, and selling off buildings and/or closing post offices in those locations where the real estate is most valuable. According to an audit conducted by the USPS’ Office of the Inspector General, they anticipate the sale of these properties could generate at minimum $27 billion. Of course the real question is: Where are these highly valuable post offices and when will they be sold? No matter how many times we ask, USPS has been remarkably tightlipped when it comes to answering those questions. All we do know is that they will likely sell or relocate facilities in major cities where they can get the greatest return. So far we’ve seen sales/closures in California at places like Venice, Ukiah, Berkeley, La Jolla and Santa Monica, and on the east coast in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York. In fact, 5 closures/relocations in New York City alone came to light last week.
Our first strategy last year was a legal one. If USPS isn’t disposing of buildings correctly, then we request consulting party status and fix the problem from the inside, right? Wrong. Turns out USPS can deny us--and pretty much anyone--consulting party status. They claim there’s nothing to consult about until they’ve made the decision to sell the building. Which is very convenient for them, because by then it’s too late for us to have any effect. In our many conversations with the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation we learned that there is actually very little they can do to make USPS comply with the Section 106 regulations either. To make a long story short, they “agree to disagree.” So what’s an advocate to do?
Well…it turns out that USPS is required to place a covenant on each property they sell to protect the character-defining features. Since a covenant is a legal encumbrance on the property, and the holder is required to monitor that covenant in perpetuity, it’s a daunting responsibility with potentially expensive legal consequences. USPS presumed that the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) in California and other states would just accepts all the historic post office covenants in each state. But the California SHPO said “no.” Which left USPS scrambling to find other responsible organizations or cities to hold the covenants instead. That’s where the National Trust stepped in. We hold many easements/covenants across the country and we do it quite well. Perhaps we could help solve USPS’s problem, while making sure the historic buildings are adequately protected and maintained after the sale? USPS seemed to like the idea. And while there are MANY questions and issues that still need to be resolved before we move ahead, we’re exploring the possibility of a pilot program this year to see if we can forge a productive partnership with USPS.
While covenants may hold an answer to the problem of the historic post offices, they may not. And so we continue to focus heavily on public education and engagement. Over the next 3 months the National Trust's Web team and I will revamp the Historic Post Offices page by adding more updates on specific post offices and issues, create an advocacy checklist as part of the "Ten on Tuesday" Blogs, promote examples of successful post office reuse like those recently featured in Preservation magazine, interview local post office advocates to share their strategies, and even look into the possibility of a mail-based postcard advocacy campaign. So keep your eyes peeled for a flood of post office activity in the coming months!
Written by Chris Morris, Project Manager
I'm Chris Morris, senior field officer for the National Trust and project manager for historic post office buildings. I invite you to check back here for my updates on the latest U.S. Postal Service (USPS) activity and how we are helping to save historic post offices across the country.
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Everyone is familiar with that iconic phrase carved on the John Farley Post Office in New York City. While inclement weather may not stop the USPS, a looming $22 billion (yes, I said billion) operating debt is threatening to bring them to a complete standstill.
According to the U.S. Postmaster General, Patrick Donahoe, in a statement before a Congressional subcommittee earlier this spring, “Our business model is broken … If the Postal Service were a private company, we would be engaged in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.”
Five consecutive years of declining First Class Mail combined with a Congressional mandate to pay $11.1 billion in prefunded retiree health benefits caused the USPS to desperately scramble for options that could keep the agency solvent.
Initially, one of those options was to consider closing thousands of post offices across the country. Nearly 4,400 post office facilities were being studied by USPS for closure until public outcry and negative responses from legislators forced the USPS to backtrack in May. Although some post offices have already been closed, and several others are candidates for “relocation” (selling the post office building but moving the post office retail services to a new site in the same town), USPS claims that their plans for large-scale closures are now off the table.
Betsy Merritt from the National Trust's legal team and Denise Ryan from public policy joined me for a call with USPS leadership recently to understand their current plans for the thousands of properties under their control. Rather than studying post offices for closing, USPS has shifted to a new five-year business plan called the Plan for Profitability.
According to the USPS officials, the plan will save them $22.5 billion over five years by:
- Legislative actions that will allow them to reduce the delivery week to five days and create their own health care plan to eliminate prefunded retiree health benefit costs.
- Reducing personnel costs by encouraging nearly 155,000 full-time employees to take early retirement.
- Re-evaluating and streamlining their 34,000 facilities.
This final bullet point is of most interest to us, and USPS claims that they are still developing alternatives to provide service to rural communities while eliminating as much excess square footage as possible. They are using a complex formula to assess a number of factors, such as the service needs of a community, current leasing terms (the USPS leases about 70% of their post office space), and distances traveled by postal carriers.
So far, they have evaluated around 1,800 postal facilities in California with this new approach, which is why we are hearing so many complaints from concerned California citizens as plans emerge to close or “relocate” post offices in LaJolla, Ukiah, Berkeley, Venice, and other communities.
During our call with USPS, we identify ways that that the National Trust and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation can help improve and streamline the disposition process by working on a draft national programmatic agreement to clarify the process for everyone.
The programmatic agreement could be accompanied by a few model templates that would allow other qualified groups to hold easements (historic preservation commissions, local historical societies) in those instances where the State Historic Preservation Offices are unwilling or unable to accept an easement on post office property. USPS wasn’t willing to discuss those options in more detail until they confer with the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation on August 3.
We will continue to work with USPS and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation to push for more comprehensive solutions, but we also intend to engage as a consulting party in at least three of the more contentious reviews currently underway. In the meantime, I’ve just learned that our “poster child” post office in Geneva, IL, has been taken off the market and there are no plans in the immediate future to close or relocate that post office.
Preservation Pennsylvania on February 09, 2015
In a report released February 9, 2015, Preservation Pennsylvania, the statewide historic preservation nonprofit, announced seven properties it has added to its Pennsylvania At Risk list, an annual listing of sites determined to be among the commonwealth’s most endangered historic resources. The seven highlighted properties were identified in 2014 through nominations submitted by the public, and will become Preservation Pennsylvania’s priorities in 2015. The Pennsylvania At Risk list includes important resource types, and common or noteworthy issues faced by historic properties in the state. In addition to demolition and potential loss due to deferred maintenance, key issues include: 1) loss of vitality due to closure of a downtown government facility; 2) impacts from inappropriately sited intensive development; and 3) physical and economic challenges faced by municipalities and property owners due to substantial increases in flood insurance premiums. Preservation Pennsylvania is committed to helping people protect and preserve Pennsylvania’s endangered historic properties and will work with them to overcome these threats and preserve and rehabilitate these significant historic places in the coming year. One of the places on this year's list is the West Chester Post Office in Chester County. The West Chester Post Office is among the most prominent buildings in downtown West Chester, and has served as an informal community meeting place and provided a federal presence in the community for nearly 100 years. In an effort to cut costs, the United States Postal Service (USPS) closed the West Chester Post Office and plans to sell it. The USPS is willing to include preservation covenants in their sales agreement to ensure the building’s preservation. Thus, the problem is not a direct threat to the post office, but rather indirect impacts to the surrounding downtown, including the loss of a facility that generates foot traffic downtown, and reduced opportunities for informal contact among community members. This situation is not unique to West Chester, but is being repeated across the nation. The West Chester Post Office is listed in Pennsylvania At Risk as an example of this important national issue in Pennsylvania.
Emily Wallrath on November 15, 2013
I wrote my Historic Preservation thesis for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the New Deal era Post Offices in Chicago. Seventeen were built in the city between 1935 and 1941; fifteen remain standing and in use as post offices. Each building was designed by one of two architects, Howard Cheney or John Bollingbacher. These distinctive buildings are part of the largest building campaign in human history. My goal was not only to document the current condition of the buildings but to lay groundwork so they if and when they were endangered, there would be a history written and a significance statement in place. Post Offices are remarkable public buildings and worthy of this campaign!
Stephanie Meeks on March 13, 2013
One of my fondest childhood memories is regular visits with my mother to the historic post office in Loveland, Colorado where I would gaze at the WPA mural of men working in the sugar beet fields of the Colorado plains. It inspired a love for old buildings and for these wonderful pieces of art.
Margot Smith on October 31, 2012
I am outraged that the United States Post Office thinks that it has the right to sell off the property that our taxes built. This is theft. Over 1100 post offices across the country will be sold. For example, the 1914 building in Berkeley is historic, and should remain public--that is, the property of those who built it and paid for it. It also has WPA art that was paid for by the public. The USPS will give the City of Berkeley the right to purchase it and keep it public. The Post Office should offer it to the City for $1. The Post Office and the City should keep it in the public sector. The USPS should not have the right to sell these properties. If it needs to dispose of them they should remain in the hands of the public who paid for them. If you need someone to interview on the issue, Gray Brechin of the University of California, Berkeley Geography Dept has been inventory of WPA projects, and has been speaking widely on the issue. firstname.lastname@example.org
SSM on September 27, 2012
The Post Office in downtown Nashville was built in 1933. It is a stunning Art Deco building, but it got relegated to "branch" status when a new main PO was built in the 1980's. With so much unused space, a group of Nashville citizens and patrons took action. It reopened as The Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It is an art museum without a permanent collection that focuses on art education. The spaces in the building offer beautiful conditions for viewing art. As a trained architect and life long Nashville resident, I have seen a lot of beautiful places and spaces in this city, but this building tops my list.
C. A. Firlik on July 01, 2012
Here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our historic post office was first used as an art museum and is now part of Kendall School of Art & Design. It's a wonderful use of such an historic building!
Mayor Kevin Burns, Geneva, Illinois on June 08, 2012
I moved to Geneva in 1974 and have watched it change over the last 4 decades. It’s become a more sophisticated community, while retaining its original small town charm. And the downtown Post Office has been key to that. I like to think of it as our community’s “kitchen table”... it represents the spirit of community, civility, and volunteer activism that defines Geneva. The post office helps us maintain a vital connection to our small town roots as we continue to grow. It’s truly the anchor of our downtown.
Jamie Daniel, Geneva, Illinois on June 08, 2012
Our family moved to Geneva on a Thursday in October, 1956. The children were enrolled in school on Friday; we asked for transfers of our church membership on Sunday; and the next important step was to get our post office box, which we did on Monday. Some 58 years have passed since then, but greeting friends at the community meeting place in the center of town while "getting the mail" is still a favorite part of the day for old timers and newer residents alike.
Liz Safanda, Geneva, Illinois on June 08, 2012
Geneva's post office is at a vital intersection near the courthouse, the Third Street shops, and the best local breakfast spot. I stop there at least once a day, usually after work, and almost always see someone I need to connect with - to remind them of a meeting, to ask for support for an advocacy issue, and even to solicit funds for a preservation cause. While stopping at the Post Office takes a little more time, it’s a perfect place to cross several things off my "to do" list. It would be a huge loss if it wasn’t there anymore.
Jason Clement on June 06, 2012
Our country's historic post offices aren't just any old buildings; they're architecturally-rich anchors on the Main Streets that make our towns and neighborhoods special. We can't let administrative issues be what causes these local icons to fall between the cracks. It’s important that we all ask ourselves: what could my historic post office building become?