Steve Finacom confirmed rumors I’d heard when he reported on June 24 that the US Postal Service will soon sell Berkeley’s downtown post office. If that sale goes through as planned, it will be only the latest instance of an accelerating heist from the public domain as the USPS Board of Governors and Congress incrementally unravel America’s 237-year old postal system. In that sense, it is also another lurch in the direction of Ayn Rand’s utopia in which public services and the public domain simply cease to exist.
In 2004, the Oroville postmaster told me that I could not photograph a New Deal-era sculpture in that town’s post office lobby since the USPS, he said, owns it. No it doesn’t, I replied. My parents paid for that art; it belongs to all of us. That’s what the public domain means. He remained adamant however. It never occurred to me at that time that the USPS — or rather, its designated real estate agent — would sell the land underneath our post offices as well as the buildings themselves. That is what is happening today as a hasty and opaque fire sale gathers momentum around the U.S..
A year ago, a resident of Ukiah told me that the USPS was “’consolidating for efficiency’ and taking the heart out of a walkable downtown.” The Post Office”, she said, “is the social center of Ukiah; the alternative is a drive-to Annex on the edge of town that requires an automobile for access.” The USPS had nonetheless gone ahead, “ignoring public comment, thousands of signatures and the law.” As elsewhere, it had thus rendered all resistance by the area’s citizens futile. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May, the building is now closed and listed for sale for $675,000.
That was only the beginning. NYU professor Steve Hutkins became so alarmed at what he was learning about the auto-liquidation of the U.S. postal system that he launched a go-to website that features many historic and architecturally distinguished properties being thrown onto the market. His site offers rebuttals to the USPS justifications for doing so that the press dutifully parrots while revealing the fox-in-henhouse makeup of the USPS Board of Governors. In a recent posting about the many exquisite California post offices that are or soon will be up for grabs, savethepostoffice.com also reveals that a year ago, the USPS gave commercial real estate giant CB Richard Ellis an exclusive contract to sell the public’s property as well as advising it on which postal facilities it should sell.
CB Richard Ellis is largely owned by its current Chairman of the Board, billionaire investor Richard C. Blum. Among his many other activities, Mr. Blum is the Alpha U.C. Regent so responsible for “restructuring” the University. He is also the domestic partner of Senator Dianne Feinstein.
It is hardly surprising that among the properties CBRE is selling are full or partial city blocks in the heart of some of the priciest towns in the U.S. Those blocks often contain mini-palaces embellished with New Deal artwork that, despite inroads by the internet, still provide vital community services while attracting customers for nearby downtown businesses. Moving what remains of those services to peripheral shopping malls and industrial strips only accelerates the centrifugal forces withering the nation’s downtowns while eliminating buildings that have long provided essential public space.
Even given the generally high quality of U.S. post offices, Berkeley’s is a standout. Nearly a century ago, the Supervising Architect of the Treasury gave the State University’s home town something special, a colonnaded edifice modeled on Brunelleschi’s famous Foundling Hospital in Florence. Built in 1914 at the same time as the Campanile, the post office was intended to harmonize with the neoclassical “city of learning” that architect John Galen Howard was designing for the University just a block away as well as with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition then nearing completion across the Bay in San Francisco.
The building has, over the years, managed to escape the tacky remodelings that the USPS has inflicted on other historic properties such as Oakland’s main post office. Its high ceilinged lobby, marble, oak, and brass fittings, and its two New Deal artworks are a far cry from the vestigial retail outlet that the USPS has said will replace it in unspecified leased space once our post office is off its hands.
As elsewhere in the U.S., that announcement that the public’s property would soon be up for grabs was made by fiat with virtually no public notice and no consultation with the community that depends upon the services that the building provides.
Concerned citizens have begun to ask questions about what they are about to lose and why. On Friday, July 20 at 7:30, the town is invited to learn more about what is at stake here and elsewhere at the Hillside Club as well as to prepare for the July 24 City Council meeting when the Council will consider a measure asking the USPS to rescind its sale of what we all own. On Tuesday, July 24, there will be a rally and Pre-Centennial Birthday Party In front of the post office at 5 PM, just prior to the City Council meeting. Call 510-684-0414 for more information.