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
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.
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?