BERKELEY -- The City Council moved this week to try to save the historic downtown post office by passing a zoning law that would restrict uses of that property and other nearby historic buildings, to community-serving uses.
But writing the law, known as a "zoning overlay," is complicated by the wide range of uses acceptable to the various council members, and by the U.S. Postal Service, whose goal is to sell the valuable property to the highest bidder.
The Jan. 28 council meeting was crowded with activists who have worked for more than a year to avert the post office sale. They presented the council with petitions signed by some 1,700 people urging the mayor to support the zoning overlay, and after discussion the council voted to have the ordinance drafted, and to include in it a broad array of permitted uses.
The resolution also called for setting a height limit of about 75 feet, the estimated height of the Milvia Street "new" City Hall.
Staff will likely prepare the ordinance for the council's Feb. 25 meeting.
"'It only seems impossible 'til it's done,'" said Moni Law, Save the Berkeley Post Office activist, quoting Nelson Mandela and urging support for the zoning overlay.
The vote was 5 to 2 to 1 to 1, with Mayor Tom Bates and Councilman Kriss Worthington opposed. Bates wanted to delay the vote for two weeks and Worthington objected to allowing the height above 60 feet. Councilman Laurie Capitelli abstained and Councilman Darryl Moore was absent.
The council resolution included a statement of willingness to enter into discussions with the U.S. Postal Service on questions of post office reuse -- something requested by a Postal Service representative -- with a demand that the agency cease its efforts to sell the building while talks were in progress.
(After the meeting, however, Clark Morrison, attorney representing the post office, told this newspaper that while he hoped the discussions would take place, he didn't think the Postal Service should observe a moratorium on the sale as the council moves forward to enact the zoning overlay ordinance.)
The crux of the controversy among council members was defining uses allowed in the overlay district.
Councilman Jesse Arreguin called for restricting uses to those that got majority votes from planning commissioners in a straw poll they conducted in November: community centers, libraries, parks, public safety services, government uses, museums and publicly-owned/nonprofit art galleries.
The resolution passed by the council reflected the desire of some to broaden the possibilities and include uses rejected by the Planning Commission majority, including private schools, live entertainment, a marketplace and affordable housing.
"I would like to allow a possible option that if there was a creative public-private partnership that it would be considered as long as it would preserve the building and the functions that the post office is still doing," Councilman Gordon Wozniak said, adding, "The problem in the end is, how do you finance it?"
The council discussion also touched on the question of two city-owned historic buildings in the district affected by the new law, Old City Hall, now used strictly for city government meetings, and the Veterans Memorial Hall. Both are in need of millions of dollars of seismic retrofit work. Bates said.
On the national front, post office supporters said they welcome a report issued Jan. 27 by the Office of the Inspector General for postal services, which recommends that the post office offer financial services such as money transfers, debit cards, and small loans. USPS would earn up to $8.9 billion annually and serve the "millions of Americans (who) do not have a bank account, or use costly services like payday loans," the report stated.