Introducing Historic Post Office Buildings

July 30, 2012 by Chris Morris

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.

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