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
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.
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?