BERKELEY -- Activists have worked for more than a year to stop the sale of the historic downtown post office. They've lobbied for federal legislation, circulated petitions, engaged lawyers, held rallies and teach-ins, and camped on the post office steps for a month.
The entire City Council, the state Legislature and Rep. Barbara Lee have supported their efforts.
Now they may get a new weapon in their fight against the United States Postal Service sale: A zoning law to restrict the use of the post office property and the use of other nearby historic sites including Old City Hall, the Veteran's Memorial Building, Civic Center Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the YMCA and more.
The zoning restrictions would likely require that these sites serve a variety of community-oriented functions.
When the Planning Commission met Sept. 4, Steve Finacom, past president of the Berkeley Historical Society, urged the panel to take initial steps to create such an ordinance.
"All the property around civic center park should be for civic use," Finacom said, before the unanimous commission vote to move ahead with the ordinance.
The properties in question already make up the Civic Center Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation offers some protection to the preservation of historical aspects of the properties, but does not address how the properties are used.
The new zoning ordinance will protect uses, according to city Planning Director Eric Angstadt.
While some 20 members of the public spoke at the commission meeting urging support of the proposal, there were two voices of dissent.
John Caner, representing the Downtown Business Association cautioned the commission against adopting restrictions "precluding possible commercial uses" of the post office site. If the post office is sold -- which he noted the DBA is not advocating -- he suggested the property might become a marketplace similar to that at San Francisco's Ferry Building, or a hotel.
Speaking for the U.S. Postal Service, Clark Morrison, an attorney with San Francisco-based Cox Castle Nicholson, also argued against the proposal.
"We are concerned that this is an attempt to chill any possible sale of the facility should the property be placed on the market," Morrison wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to the commission.
Addressing them directly, Morrison asked commissioners to table the proposal, arguing that since there is no sale on the table, the proposal is premature.
Instead, he called for dialogue between the postal service, and Berkeley's city manager, city attorney and planning director.
"I've always found that the best solution for land use disputes is conversation, not litigation," he said.
Commissioners became visibly frustrated questioning Morrison, when he was unable to detail the steps the Postal Service is taking to sell the post office building and relocate its functions or to say what might result from the dialogue he was proposing.
At one point, Commissioner Jim Novosel called Morrison's responses "baloney" and said the Postal Service needed to start the discussion "by putting something real on the table."
Meanwhile, activists called out from the audience, saying they should be included in any city-Postal Service meetings.
Commissioner Victoria Eisen asked Morrison for assurance that if the city entered into talks with the Postal Service, that a sale wouldn't occur during the process. Clark said he couldn't do that.
"I have a client which is a federal bureaucracy," he said, "and makes decisions in mysterious ways."
Addressing the commission, Mike Lonergan of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, pointed to a historic post office in Connecticut that has become an upscale restaurant.
"That kind of use would diminish our community," he said. "Our civic center is part of the fabric of the city -- it's got a public purpose."
The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the question at 7 p.m. Oct. 2 at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.
After the hearing, city planners will finalize proposed restrictions on uses of properties within the district. And after Planning Commission recommendation of a draft ordinance, the City Council will vote on it.