The ongoing public protest to keep the Downtown Berkeley Post Office from being “relocated”, and the historic building sold, continued Tuesday evening with a rally on the steps of the building. When the event started I counted about 75 people, and the crowd grew to around 100 before the end.
While protesters listened to speakers and sang at one end of the steps of the building on Allston Way, a media representative for the Post Office, Augustine Ruiz, stood at the other end and talked to reporters.
The rally organizers had planned—after hearing speakers and cutting an “early birthday” cake for the Post Office building (which is nearly 100 years old)—to march to City Hall for the regular Tuesday night Council meeting, where an item opposing the building sale was on the agenda.
However, the Council meeting was cancelled, apparently due to a broken elevator in City Hall. Councilmember Laurie Capitelli attended the rally, applauded some of the speakers, and took the megaphone to tell the crowd, “I fully expect a week from tonight that the Council will take a position to urge the Post Office to take this building off the market and give us some time to find a creative use for it.”
Speakers at the rally included geographer Gray Brechin, a Post Office worker, former Councilmember Ying Lee, and a number of others.
(Disclosure. I spoke briefly at the rally and opposed the sale of the building and relocation of the Post Office downtown. I urged people present to work for a solution for the continued public use of the building that is openly negotiated and discussed, rather than worked out behind closed doors.)
“It’s an old fashioned 19th century land grab of the 21st century” Brechin charged, echoing his theme from last Friday’s hastily organized meeting at the Hillside Club. “The property that your parents and my parents paid for is being put on the market. How does this happen?”
Brechin recalled, to applause, that during the Great Depression a recurring quotation incorporated into public art was “The noblest motive is the public good”, from Virgil. He gestured at the Post Office behind him.
“When you go into that building you feel good about your government. The people who have taken over the postal system don’t want that. That’s why they want that flag to come down.”
Retired Berkeley Art Museum founding director Peter Selz spoke briefly, noting, “mail delivery goes back to the time of the Romans.” “Don’t take this building away from the people who own it”, he said.
Ying Lee, talked about “this lovely building” and said, “this is the canary (in the coal mine), one of many canaries. We’ve allowed so much to be taken from us.” “ ‘Occupy’ is going to happen again. We’ve got to wake up. We’ve got to keep on fighting”, she concluded.
Numerous signs were held up in the crowd, and along the street, and passing cars periodically honked. A USPS truck passed by on Allston, the driver peering curiously at the crowd in front of the building. (A postal worker in the crowd informally said that there are currently about 27 delivery routes that operate out of the Downtown building, in addition to the counter service. They added that the delivery routes would be sent to 8th Street, where the bulk mail operations are also going.)
As the speakers preceded, Ruiz, the official USPS spokesperson was answering questions. “We have a request to go before the City Council,” he said. “Currently we’re in a negotiation with the City manager.” Asked to clarify, he explained that the meeting request was not for next Tuesday night’s Council meeting, but for a future special meeting date.
He said that two California post offices in Yountville and Oakville had been kept open after public objection and everything that would be said at the meeting with the Council “becomes part of a public document that goes to Washington.” “Everything we’re doing here is very transparent.”
Ruiz was shadowed by another, unsmiling and silent, man also wearing government ID who hovered behind him and periodically appeared to be snapping pictures of people in the crowd.
Asked if the Post Office indeed intended to sell the Downtown building Ruiz said, “in this case, since we own the building, we’re attempting to sell, yes.” But “the only thing that will change here is that the retail counter will be elsewhere.”
I asked where that would be. “We’re looking at other sites, but we haven’t started negotiations with anybody yet”, he answered.
I asked about the process for the sale. “We have a firm that’s looking into that”, he said. “So far we haven’t had any buyers yet.” “We have a realty firm to help us with the sale…that is all internal.”
Had the firm been showing the building to potential buyers, he was asked? “They may have,” he said, adding, “I understand that even the YMCA was looking at it”, gesturing across the street at the “Y” complex.
Ruiz said that at what he characterized as the future “community meeting” with the Council, “we’re going to tell what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and where to send comments.”
I asked if the sale process would be halted until the community meeting process ran its course. “We are currently looking, right now, for buyers” he responded. “One does not have to happen for the other to happen, if that’s what you’re asking.”
He said a timeline and milestones for the sale process “will be announced at the City Council meeting.”
Asked by a reporter if the Postal Service had considered options other than sale he answered “believe me, we’ve looked all the considerations. There’s a certain amount of money this real estate is worth. We have to figure out a way to stop the bleeding” in the Postal Service budget.
Asked if that didn’t mean the building was being sold to provide ready cash for the USPS operations or deficit, he responded, “we’re trying to sell property, make revenue, and put it back into our operations.”
“The first class letter is going away, it’s never going to come back”, he said, regarding the future of hard copy mail. “E-mail is not the issue. It’s (e-mail) a competition with the phone company.” “The big beast that is really hurting us is business transactions that now go through the Internet”, rather than as first class letters, he added.
Besides Capitelli, there were no other Councilmembers I spotted at the rally until Councilmember Kriss Worthington arrived near the end. I asked him for his views. “Our first priority should be to try to keep the Post Office services in the Post Office building”, Worthington said. “There are numerous technical questions about whether the process has been followed” for properly disposing of USPS buildings.
“The whole push (in government) for austerity and divestment is counter productive to getting the economy moving again”, he added. “The more government lays off people and sells off property, the more they’re creating long term problems.”
“I think the reason the City doesn’t react is that they are champing at the bit for development,” said Jacquelyn McCormick, who, like Worthington, is running for Mayor. She was in the rally crowd. “You can’t continue to destroy the personality and architectural character of the city.”
After the crowd dispersed, I spotted John Caner, the executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, walking along Allston Way. I asked him if the DBA had taken a position on the proposed sale and closure.
“The DBA doesn’t have a position” yet, he emphasized, adding that the Board hadn’t discussed it, but he would try to have it on their agenda at their next meeting.
“It’s absolutely critical to have a Post Office downtown, and I think we’d like to have it where it is”, he added. “Personally, I’d like to see the front (along Allston) remain a Post Office.”
Steven Finacom is President of the Berkeley Historical Society.