Berkeley’s historic downtown post office.
By Judith Scherr
Despite the Berkeley community’s solid and vocal opposition to a postal service plan to sell the historic downtown post office, postal officials announced Monday they intend to move forward with the sale.
Opponents have until May 7 to appeal the decision.
“It’s outrageous that the postal service would take this unilateral action to sell off our patrimony, our heritage, our treasure,” said Dave Welsh, retired letter carrier, active with Save the Berkeley Post Office and the national organization, Community and Postal Workers United.
Postal officials, however, say they must sell buildings, cut service hours and consolidate facilities to save a post office bleeding billions of dollars every year.
Calling the USPS decision “very disappointing ,” City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, whose district includes the downtown post office, said postal authorities ignored “the overwhelming opposition of the community and the unanimous City Council – and it’s not often that the council’s united on an issue.”
But USPS spokesperson Augustine Ruiz explained: “While we have taken all those concerns and opinions of the public that attended [a February public hearing], we have to balance that against our fiduciary responsibility to keep this post office and the postal service viable….And part of that has to do with looking at our extensive real estate holdings.”
Arreguin argued that the budget problem is manufactured, a result of a Congressional mandate requiring USPS to pay 75 years of retiree health benefits in advance over ten years.
Ruiz said USPS hopes an eventual buyer will lease the part of the building now used to service postal customers – just a fraction of the 57,000 square-foot building – back to USPS. If not, the postal service will rent space nearby.
But Arreguin said it doesn’t make fiscal sense to sell the building for one-time windfall profit, then pay high rents in perpetuity to lease back the space. Community members suggested, instead, keeping the building and renting out unused space.
Ruiz said he didn’t know what the USPS budget is for rent or the projected sales price. (If appeals fail, the post office will be marketed by San Francisco-based CBRE, headed by Richard Blum, a University of California trustee and husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.)
The law requires any buyer to preserve designated historic features of the post office. However, the buyer can restrict public access to the interior of the 1914 building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and to the New Deal-era mural inside the building. The art work will remain USPS property.
“We want to maintain that front space from whoever buys that building,” Ruiz said. “So if we’re able to work out that lease then of course the public access stays put.”
But if the buyer does not want to lease the space back to the post office, “public access will be determined by whoever buys that building,” Ruiz said, further noting, “while they don’t own the mural, they do have ownership of any access to their building.”
While bidding for the building has not begun, Arreguin said both the University of California and the Peralta Community College District have shown interest.
Welsh said the sale of the Berkeley Post Office is emblematic of the larger problem – the United States Postal Service’s “attempt to dismantle and privatize the postal service piece by piece.” He said, with its 550,000-strong workforce, USPS is the second-largest employer in the U.S. after Walmart and has the largest unionized workforce, with African Americans making up about 21 percent of postal workers.
“They want to destroy the unionized postal service and the living wage jobs which go with it,” Welsh said. “What they want is to reduce this 550,000 workers to Walmart wages. We’re determined to fight it.”
Letters to appeal the decision to sell the post office can be sent to: Vice President, Facilities, Facilities Implementation – Pacific Area, 1300 Evans Ave. Ste. 200, San Francisco CA 94188-0200