The Sticky Wicket of Regulating the Use of Repurposed Post Office Buildings

By Brian Turner posted 01-17-2017 16:53


Saving great architecture can sometimes require that a building be given a new purpose, and historic post offices are a case in point. Though built for a very specific use, hundreds across the country have now been adapted for everything from funeral homes to hotels.

But saving the brick and mortar of a building may not please those who appreciate the less-tangible value of a post office as a community center. Losing a post office to a more exclusive use may mean the loss of a public commons. Consider this quip from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in a Federal Register notice from 1998:

Throughout the towns and villages of America, people have long viewed their post office as much more than a place to send and receive mail. A community’s post office is a vital part of its infrastructure—a place to greet old friends, make new ones, and exchange information.

The Berkely Main Post Office mural "Incidents in California" summarizes Berkely's history prior to its incorporation in 1878. It was painted by Susanne Scheuer in 1937 for the Treasury Relief Art Project.

In our campaign to save America’s historic post offices, we have heard from a strong constituency advocating for keeping postal or other public functions in post offices. After all, the buildings—and the works of art that grace their walls—were typically funded by our tax dollars, so selling them to the highest bidder raises questions about whether the USPS has the communities’ best interests in mind. And the old maxim that “they don’t build them like they used to” certainly rings true in places like downtown Venice, California, where the historic post office building has been sold to a prominent movie producer and the post office branch has been moved to a nondescript former carrier annex that pales in comparison.

So what is a concerned community to do? Let’s start with three suggestions.

  • Appeal to the leadership of the USPS to reconsider a sale or require a leaseback. USPS regulations have recently been changed to allow for greater public input when relocations are considered.
  • Use the Section 106 process under the National Historic Preservation Act as leverage. (But temper your expectations here.) Advocates have argued—with limited success—that deed restrictions accompanying a sale should include provisions that require public accessibility. And, much to the chagrin of the National Trust and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the USPS still claims to follow that law “voluntarily." (Even though Section 106 states that an adverse effect can be the “[c]hange of the character of the property’s use … that contribute[s] to its historic significance,” the USPS does not typically consider mitigation measures that would keep post office lobbies open to the public after sale.)
  • Talk to your members of Congress. Representatives on both sides of the aisle have been helpful in channeling citizens’ concerns over closures and relocations.

Success Stories

A few places have successfully saved post office buildings as a cultural commons.

Some cities have the capacity to purchase the buildings outright. The city of Palo Alto is currently in negotiations to purchase its New Deal–era post office, which was designed by a prominent local architect. If the sale moves forward, the plan is to keep postal retail operations in the building through a leaseback to the USPS.

In other cases community-based nonprofit organizations take the lead. In 2005 the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center in Urbana, Illinois, raised funds to purchase the city’s post office and lease one of the retail units to the USPS. The underused portions of the building now house a low-frequency radio station, a library, classes taught by local interest groups, a bike repair shop, and a computer repair shop. That success story was profiled in a USPS Office of Inspector General report in 2015.

Some places have taken much bolder steps. For instance, the cities of Ross and Carmel, both in California, banned house numbers, forcing its citizens have to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Talk about a way to shore up support for your local post office!

Last but not least, the city of Berkeley, California, resorted to using its zoning powers. This move was not without controversy, and the outcome of a lawsuit brought by the federal government on behalf of USPS will ultimately determine whether it is permissible. Berkeley’s historic post office is located in the center of the National Register–listed Civic Center Historic District. When USPS put the building up for sale in 2012, the community feared that the highest bidder would limit public access. Unable to make headway in requiring public accessibility in a preservation covenant, the city adopted a Historic Overlay in the form of a zoning ordinance amendment. The overlay limited permissible uses of buildings within the historic district to those with essentially public- and community-oriented purposes.

The USPS objected and, last August, filed a lawsuit against the city through the U.S. Department of Justice. Its complaint states that the overlay violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by “prohibiting any commercially viable uses,” impeding the USPS’ ability to sell the building by reducing its value. The city has filed a motion to dismiss, stating, among other defenses, that neither Congress nor the Constitution give the USPS the "right to secure a commercial buyer for the sale of its properties at whatever price it has in mind." Federal District Judge William Alsup denied the City’s motion on January 12 and ordered the parties to prepare for a trial if the case is not settled by next fall.

All this to say that, the next time you head to a historic post office, take some time to appreciate the qualities of the building that make your wait in line a little more pleasant. Walking through the doors is long American tradition and an act of civic engagement.

Brian Turner is a senior field officer and attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#Section106 #NationalTreasure #HistoricPostOffices

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