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Detail of Suzanne Scheuer mural, 1936-1937, lobby of the Berkeley CA Main Post Office,
Detail 1937 Scheuer mural, Berkeley Main P.O.
At 11 a.m. on Thursday, September 13th, the Post Office Subcommittee of the Berkeley City Council held a public meeting with representatives of the United States Postal Service regarding the “relocation” of the Berkeley Main Post Office and sale of the historic building at 2000 Allston Way.  Even though the meeting was held in the middle of a workday, concerned citizens filled the Council Chambers in Berkeley’s Old City Hall.

Mayor Tom Bates convened the meeting.  Two of the three councilmembers on the Post Office Subcommittee attended, Susan Wengraf and Jesse Arreguin.  Committee member Laurie Capitelli was absent.

The agenda called for brief remarks by the Post Office Subcommittee, comments by the staff of Congresswoman Barbara Lee; a power point presentation by representatives of the United States Postal Service; comments from an expert panel consisting of community leader and former Berkeley City Councilmember Ying Lee, scholars Harvey Smith and Gray Brechin, and American Postal Workers Union leader Steve Lysaght; and public comment by Berkeley citizens.  The handouts including the USPS presentation are available here.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s comments read in part:

"The Berkeley Main Post Office is a pillar of the downtown area, providing the community with central access to postal services and symbolizing Berkeley’s arrival into the modern era.  For 97 years, the Berkeley Main Post Office has provided postal services to businesses and communities in the area and I stand with my constituents to say that it should continue to serve the public for many decades more.  I strongly urge you to listen to our voices today and move expeditiously to abandon plans to close this local icon and beloved post office."
  Berkeley’s Main Post Office enjoys a prominent place between Berkeley High School and Shattuck Avenue, our downtown’s main street. Everyday hundreds of high school students pass the post office building and its flag. Celia Jailer Shannon, Berkeley High School Commissioner of Student Activism wrote this to Postmaster General Patrick Donahue:
  "Berkeley High School students and the youth of Berkeley condemn any and all actions that endeavor to privatize or sell the City of Berkeley’s Post Office.

   "The downtown Berkeley Post Office is a beautiful and historic building that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents have enjoyed, utilized and paid taxes towards. The Post Office is part of our cultural inheritance, our heritage, our legacy. It is a living, breathing, functional link to our city’s past and it belongs to us all and the future generations to follow.

   "It is NOT your right to rob the city and its youth of such an irreplaceable piece of infrastructure. The Post Office, as part of our common history, is something to be cherished and preserved, not sold at the convenience and discretion of the federal Postal Service."

Citizens Line Up to Speak, Hearing on the Sale of the Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley citizens lining up to speak
The USPS representatives presented background information on the Postal Service financial crisis. First there’s the mandate from Congress to pre-fund future employee retirement health care costs.  Second, first class mail has declined. Third, the USPS mandate to provide universal service currently means 151 million delivery points.  The number of delivery points increases by 600,000 each year.  

The intention of the Postal Service in Berkeley is to lease a 4000 square foot space to replace our Main Post Office and the nearby 3600 square foot leased storefront that provides additional post office boxes.  The USPS estimates that selling Berkeley’s Main will result in a $5 million savings over a ten year period.  The $5 million savings is reduced by a $1 million dollar one time capital improvement expense.  That now $4 million savings also (magically) assumes an $8000 annual savings in rental costs.  The USPS assumes they will be able to rent a new 4000 square foot facility for less than the current leased 3600 square foot post office box facility.  The USPS estimates a carrier labor cost increase of $140,000 annually that will be offset by reductions of $450,000 in craft/ maintenance labor, $170,000 in utilities expense and $20,000 in “inter-station transportation.”  

The USPS representatives initially announced that Thursday’s meeting started a 15 calendar day comment period clock.  After Berkeley sub-committee members pointed out a number of irregularities, the USPS representatives agreed that an additional evening public meeting will be scheduled and that the 15 calendar day comment period clock will begin with that meeting.  

Ying Lee began the Community Panel with a discussion of the Post Office in the context of the Civil Rights movement.  The Post Office has historically been a major employer of African-Americans. For many citizens Post Office jobs have been a path to the middle class.

Performing Artist Hali Hammer
Performing Artist Hali Hammer
Harvey Smith said that the USPS national pattern shows a disregard for public input. Closures are labeled relocations to shortcut public input.  Smith said there is a counter narrative to the story told by the USPS.  The Postal Service survived the telegraph and the telephone; it can survive the internet.  The financial problems of the Postal Service are primarily caused by Congress.  Pension and health benefit accounts are over-funded.  The intent of Congress is to force privatization. USPS management is on the side of privatization. Historic Post Offices are legacies and their sale is an unnecessary liquidation of our heritage that directly benefits a private entity.  USPS management is acting as an accomplice in the theft of public property.

Gray Brechin sees the sale of historic post office building as a nationwide problem.  The USPS holds pro-forma meetings and then goes ahead with the sale.  Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE) has the exclusive contract to advise the USPS on what buildings to sell and then serves as the agent in the sale of the buildings.  CBRE “is no doubt profiting handsomely from the sale of the public’s property. The press has entirely failed to cover this shocking conflict of interest.”  Brechin called on Mayor Bates to take the issue of the sale of historic post offices to the U.S. Council of Mayors.

Steve Lysaght of the American Postal Workers Union said that he started as a postal worker when he was 18 years old and that his work with the Post Office provided the financial means to raise four children.  Lysaght called the proposed closing of Berkeley’s Main Post Office an ideological political decision and said getting rid of clerk and maintenance jobs in Berkeley is a continuation of the layoff of 220,000 postal employees and the push by USPS management to eliminate six day delivery.

This KPFA newscast has audio from the meeting including singing led by Hali Hammer.  The report on the meeting is at about the 28 minute mark.  

Originally posted to blue denim on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 11:45 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Selling our birthright for a mess of pottage (6+ / 0-)

    29 ... and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.

    30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.

    31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.

    32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

    33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he swore unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

    34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

  •  Good diary, thanks. That funding requirement (12+ / 0-)

    should never have been signed into law.

  •  It's a Bay-Area-centric venue (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue denim, la urracca, glorificus

    that runs a diary like this so prominently.

    I'm 5 miles from that post office, in Oakland. I tipped and rec'd the diary, anyway (as I probably would have tipped and rec'd a diary about a similar situation in a distant state), because it furthers a needed discussion.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 04:50:33 PM PDT

  •  thanks from a Berkeley alum, blue denim! (8+ / 0-)

    This is a fantastically important issue. If we, the actual owners of these beautiful old buildings, allow them to be sold off, what do you suppose will be next on the chopping block? Say goodbye to our public lands...!

    Wag more, bark less.

    by sgrAstar on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 05:17:57 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this update, blue denim. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue denim

    I need to get on the alert list for these meetings, in case one is held that I can get to. Do you have a way to sign up for alerts on this topic?

    We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
    Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

    by pixxer on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 10:08:42 PM PDT

  •  Restore and repurpose the Berkeley Post Office (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    adamcadre

    Berkeley Main Post Office is gorgeous and I love to look at it at much as others in this thread, but as a Post Office, it's inefficient, inconvenient, and has many barriers to good service for both the public and postal workers. USPS finances are crimped by many competing needs including the ill-considered retirement plan and competition from the Internet, UPS and FedEx.

    We can all agree that the building is beautiful and worth preserving, but the post office for most customers is about efficient and timely service, and for workers, it is about a comfortable, efficient, well lit, and safe work place  where they can feel good about their jobs.

    Berkeley Main in its current use is less and less able to provide those amenities. Customers may appreciate the floors or the woodwork at first, but no doubt their enthusiasm wanes as they stand in long, slow lines, or roam the lobbies trying to decipher inaccurate, fading or conflicting signs or find someone who can help them with a service that is advertized on the web.

    On the other side of the customer service windows, workers sit on high stools to reach the counter and climb up and down to get supplies from widely dispersed storage areas or drop packages in distant rolling bins.  

    Information is hard to come by. Signs are outdated, and often confusing and/or wrong, so customers are left to bang on closed doors to find someone who can provide information. After two days wandering the halls trying to get the information I needed to renew my passport at Berkeley Main, I gave up. Why? Because, despite what the signs and the internet said, the only person providing  information to the public began her shift several hours before the Post Office was open to the public, left by noon, and couldn't answer the questions on the phone. She apparently didn't have time to create and post accurate signs either.

    In contrast, it took 5 minutes to park at the Albany Post Office, a pleasant one story, contemporary building, and less than 5 minutes for me to find the person in charge, ask my question, exchange pleasantries, and be on my way.

    I take from this experience that the architecture of Berkeley Main itself impedes good management,  supervision, and service.

    I rarely disagree with my excellent congresswoman, Barbara Lee, but on this issue, I do.

    Berkeley Main Post Office should be repurposed and refurbished for a private sector use that is open to the public and invites long consideration of the beauty of the building. San Francisco's Rincon Annex, with its well preserved Depression era murals and excellent Yank Sing Restaurant, provides a model.  

    The USPS could use the proceeds from the sale to find/build a more efficient, up to date building appropriate to today's work requirements and  cash flow and/or to maintain its network of convenient neighborhood post offices. Bottom line, wouldn't it be better in this age of the computer to HAVE a postal service with actual letter carriers and mail/package service than to lose all of it to UPS and FedEx by insisting on keeping a building that no longer meets its needs?

    "There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires." - President Obama

    by fhcec on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 10:10:55 PM PDT

    •  the historic architecture impedes good service? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      divineorder

      I've had good and bad service at the post office at new buildings and at old buildings, in small towns and in large cities.  I've also had good and bad service at the same building on different days.

      My takeaway was that Berkeley's Main Post Office is usually understaffed and that its customers have somewhat more complicated transactions, e.g. more international packages.

      Berkeley's Main Post Office was built to show civic pride and to inspire us as citizens to take pride in our country. The challenges of today differ in particulars from a few generations ago but our need to be inspired to be better citizens is no less now than it was in 1914.  The building might make an attractive Chinese restaurant but it was built for something more than a pleasant dining experience.

      •  well, just because one has found new life (0+ / 0-)

        as a Chinese restaurant doesn't mean that everyone has to be that.

        Berkeley Main may be understaffed but the available windows have always had staff there when I've waited in line to ask a question or mail a package. So perhaps it's the building that costs so much they don't have money for adequate staffing, or the building was built for a much slower time when they didn't need so much staff.

        But what are they doing having a public contact person in the building for at least half of her shift when the building is closed to the public? It's a mystery to me, but for sure it's an extremely inefficient set up.

        "There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires." - President Obama

        by fhcec on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 11:55:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  OK (0+ / 0-)

          For reasons I don't get you want to save the building but don't think having postal services at 2000 Allston Way makes sense.  

          Let's set that aside.  The other part of the news is how the Post Office is being used to enrich the private sector and break unions.  

          The pre-funding of future retiree medical costs alone accounts for the USPS financial crisis.  Now "pre-funding" doesn't sound so unreasonable until you dig a little. NYT columnist Joe Nocera said "It makes no sense."  The $5 billion plus a year has little actuarial basis.  The specific dollar amounts for each year were written into the 2006 law.  In the last four years the USPS has cut 120,000 career employees.  Fewer employees change the need but not the amount because only Congress can change the amount.

          With the 2006 law Congress is forcing the USPS to liquidate assets.  And surprise the one per cent gets richer, the 99 poorer.  In Berkeley, CBRE is getting an advisory fee on the proposed sale of the Main and half of the other property USPS owns in Berkeley; it's over on 8th Street near University Village. The way it works around the country is a historic post office is lost, middlemen collect a handsome cut, a developer gets rich, and we get to pay rent on some very generic building located more conveniently for autos than pedestrians.

          USPS has about $66 billion in annual revenues.  Their largest vendor is FedEx. FedEx has something like the sixth largest aircraft fleet, $43 billion in revenues and a fat $1.5 billion each year from a seven year USPS contract does a lot to keep FedEx in the black.  One estimate is that FedEx nets $400 million a year off the air contract.  FedEx isn't just the USPS largest vendor.  FedEx is also the largest customer of the USPS. SmartPost is lucrative for FedEx. USPS delivers to some 150 million addresses, FedEx and UPS serve about 20 million addresses.  Both FedEx and UPS use the postal service to make deliveries to the 130 million addresses they do not serve.

          OK.  Maybe you don't see anything wrong with what's going on with the USPS. My thought is that since you see the craziness in the tax structure, you might be able to see that the same game is in play with the USPS.

    •  Nice building, crappy post office (0+ / 0-)

      Unless dramatic changes have occurred since the last time I tried to use it, it is stupefyingly slow and generally unpleasant to use. with abysmal customer service and a cramped and poorly designed public space.  It's easier and quicker to walk 15' to the stations on Adeline or north Shattuck (and infinitely easier to park if driving), or even to take Bart to the federal bldg in downtown Oakland, than to endure the ridiculous waits downtown.  

      I hope the great old building is preserved, but jeez, it hasn't really served as an effective post office for a long, long time.

  •  Thanks, blue denim (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue denim

    Thanks for detailed write-up. I'm out of town but my thoughts are with you and Harvey and Gray.  

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