BERKELEY -- Fighting the sale of the downtown post office is not only unproductive but undermines the city's potential to revitalize its downtown, wrote Berkeley Design Advocates, a nonprofit organization of architects and other design professionals, in a Sept. 16 letter to Mayor Tom Bates.
"We believe that continuing to fight for no change in the post office's current operation is futile and will lead to unexpected and unwanted outcomes," they wrote.
For more than a year, there have been a panoply of activities to save the historic building from sale by the U.S. Postal Service, with demonstrations on the post office steps, a monthlong encampment there, petitioning and letter-writing campaigns, and formal opposition to the sale by local, state and federal officials.
The City Council voted to join a lawsuit that will challenge the sale and is considering rezoning the civic center so that uses of historic buildings there -- including the post office, Old City Hall and the Veteran's Building -- are restricted to public-serving activities.
But Berkeley Design Advocates board member Alex Bergtraun called the rezoning proposal a "scorched earth policy" and said it "would preclude most of the kinds of commercial uses that create jobs and economic growth that belong in our downtown."
He argued that there are better ways to ensure that the ground floor of the building stays open to the public in perpetuity. "Easements can be put on the sale of the property to restrict development in a way that the building would require that any private reuse of the building contributes financially to the improvements of the downtown," he said, meaning "that the lower floor continues to be accessible to the public, that the historic exterior and the lobby continues to be publicly accessible."
He suggested that ground floor uses could include a market hall, specialty shops, restaurants, performance space, eateries geared to the Berkeley High lunch crowd, and lobby space where Postal Service retail functions would continue.
While historic sections of the post office would be preserved, Bergtraun said there's opportunity to develop the one-acre site to include a hotel, conference center or residences.
"There's opportunities where you'd be developing the back side of the building and go up, and that would offset the cost of the atrium space that would be preserved," he said, adding that increasing the number of people living downtown "is a way of magnetizing and vitalizing an area."
Councilman Jesse Arreguin, who introduced the concept of rezoning the downtown historic buildings, pointed out that the proposal, in part, is intended to discourage sale of the property.
If it were sold, however, Arreguin said public-serving uses such as a market hall or performing arts venue could be acceptable.
Arreguin criticized the BDA proposal. "What they want is a blank check and no restrictions. They want to build up," he said, noting that downtown zoning allows a 120-foot tower at that site. "They want to bring in a hotel or residential -- that's not what I've heard from people in the community about what they want. I believe it should continue as something that is public serving, something that meets the specific needs of our community and not something that's going to serve a developer or a corporation."
Beginning Wednesday, BDA will host an exhibit in the Wells Fargo Building lobby, 2140 Shattuck Ave., showing adaptive reuse of various post office buildings and potential reuse of the Berkeley post office.
Also Wednesday, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the zoning overlay ordinance for historic civic center buildings at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.