BERKELEY -- Despite appeals from a united City Council, state legislators, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and dozens of community groups and individuals, the United States Postal Service announced July 18 that it will sell the historic downtown Berkeley Post Office.
"While I am sympathetic to the concerns raised by the concerned parties ... I will not set aside the Postal Service's April 19th decision" to sell the post office, USPS Vice President Tom A. Samra stated in a letter posted at the building.
Harvey Smith, with Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, said he wasn't surprised at the announcement. He said the sale of historic post offices is part of a "definite pattern in what USPS is doing."
He added that the appeals process is just the USPS "going through the motions" and that the sale is part of an ongoing plan to dismantle the agency and privatize postal services.
Smith said he is hopeful, however, that a legal strategy can stop the sale. Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office is working with the National Post Office Collaborate, an organization created to pursue legal responses to the sale of historic post office buildings.
On July 17, one day before the sale was announced, the NPOC held a fundraiser at the Hillside Club to raise funding for legal expenses.
Attorney Adam Ford of firm Ford & Huff was there to talk about strategy. As soon as an actual sale is announced, attorneys will go to court to block it with a temporary restraining order. At the same time, steps will be taken to file a lawsuit to preserve the historic building as public space and to protect its New Deal-era art.
With the attorneys from Ford & Huff, the NPOC is working with advocates for two other historic post offices -- one in the Bronx section of New York City and one in La Jolla, Calif. -- the Postal Service intends to sell. "We wish we could fight every (threatened sale) but logistically, it's not possible," Ford said, explaining that if advocates can stop the sale of these three post offices, the USPS may back off on the hundreds of others that are or may be targeted for sale.
While the USPS says it must shut down post offices because the agency is losing money, Ford said the problem lies with the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act which requiring the post office to prefund retiree health care benefits for 75 years in the future. "The post office is required to fund their retirement accounts in a way that no private company is required to do," he said.
Councilman Jesse Arreguin responded to the USPS announcement with a news release, saying, "Despite statements that the USPS needs to sell the building to address financial challenges, the Postal Service did not adequately consider alternatives to the sale, and ultimately selling a building that USPS already owns in exchange for renting high value commercial space in downtown is like selling your car for gas."
The City Council voted to sign onto an eventual lawsuit, Arreguin said, telling this newspaper, "The fight isn't over."
The USPS letter announcing the final determination for sale promises "The Postal Service will enter into a written agreement with the new owner to ensure the preservation of and public access to, the mural."
However, speaking at the Hillside Club event, Gray Brechin, visiting scholar in UC Berkeley's Geography Department, explained what had happened in Venice, Calif. when the historic post office with the "Story of Venice" mural had been sold to a Hollywood producer.
"He now effectively owns the mural because it's only going to be accessible to the public six days out of the year by appointment," Brechin said.
The Berkeley building is not currently listed for sale on the website of CBRE, the real estate company charged with selling the post office's historic properties. In an email, a CBRE spokeswoman referred this newspaper to the USPS for details on the status of the sale. USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz emailed, writing, "We still have regulatory requirements we have to satisfy before we can determine whether or when to market the building. Having the relocation approved allows us to move forward to satisfy these requirements." He declined to disclose the value of the building saying "that information is proprietary."
At the July 17 meeting, both Brechin and Ford blasted CBRE, contending that Richard Blum, who heads the CBRE board, has a conflict of interest, given that his spouse is Sen. Dianne Feinstein and that CBRE will be profiting from the sales.
Feinstein spokesman Brian Weiss maintains, however, that the senator doesn't "discuss any of her husband's business decisions with him" and that Blum's assets "are his separate personal property."
In addition to pursuing legal avenues, the Berkeley City Council asked its staff on July 16 to write an ordinance that "will not only limit uses of properties in the district to those consistent with the character of the district, but it will also ensure that the Downtown Post Office can only be utilized for a civic or community-oriented use, and may help influence the USPS decide a more favorable future for the building."
Undaunted, Smith said the Save the Berkeley Post Office group will celebrate the post office building's 100-year birthday on the post office steps at 1 p.m. July 27.