The check isn't exactly in the mail, but Palo Alto took its first major move toward buying the Hamilton Avenue post office Monday night when the City Council agreed to make a bid for the historic and iconic building.
The council voted 7-0, with Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, to authorize staff to submit an offer for the 1932 building, which was designed by Birge Clark and which the U.S. Postal Service is looking to a sell as part of a nationwide plan to cut costs. The city has already commissioned an independent appraisal of the 380 Hamilton Ave. building, which the council discussed in a closed session last week.
On Monday, the council agreed that the downtown building is an important asset that should be preserved for public use if possible. And while members cautioned that purchase of the building is far from a done deal, they generally agreed that it would be a good deal for the city.
Staff had argued that buying the building would make financial sense because it would allow the city to stop leasing spaces outside City Hall for its operations. This includes the Development Center, the city's permitting operation, which operates out of a leased space in a building across the street from City Hall.
Under the staff proposal, the Development Center would be transferred to the post office, where it would potentially share space with the Planning Department and with a small postal-service retail operation.
"This is a particularly valuable community asset," Planning Director Curtis Williams told the council Monday. "It provides not only the opportunity to preserve this historic treasure as well as provides us with some opportunities to consolidate some city functions and save money."
Though the city is keeping its appraisal confidential, Williams said the city's financial analyses shows that buying the post office "would be a profitable venture for the city over a 10- to 20-year time period, depending on what the purchase price is."
City officials aren't the only ones excited about the potential purchase. Beth Bunnenberg, a member of the city's Historic Resources Board, was one of several residents to speak out Monday in favor of the purchase.
"Please, please, please put in a bid for the Hamilton Avenue post office for the City of Palo Alto," Bunnenberg said. "This is an architectural gem at the heart of downtown. It's a meeting place where we see our friends and newcomers and all enjoy our beautiful lobby."
Douglas Graham, a Barron Park historian, voiced a similar sentiment and argued that buying the building is the best way to protect its historical integrity. Because the building is listed on the National Historic Registry, any purchase would have to include a historic covenant to ensure that any alterations would not interfere with the building's historical status.
"I'm delighted that we have an opportunity to actually make productive use of this building and save some money for the city," Graham said. "I think it's a very appropriate use for the old building, and I'd feel much more secure in its safety and preservation if it were in public hands than in private."
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who made a motion to make a bid for the post office, called it a "jewel in our community."
"I think there is angst right now that we have that it's going to be listed commercially, and we will be in a contest with other people who will be bidding on it," Shepherd said. "But with the financial analysis shown us, having it pay back at most in 20 years, really makes this I don't want to say a no-brainer but certainly the most interesting proposition I've seen to get our planning department into a government building."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed that the city should make a bid for the building, though she urged the community not to think of this as a done deal.
"We have to let the community know that this cannot be a fait accompli," Kniss said. "We're very interested in getting it, and we'll negotiate very well, but we cannot guarantee that we will be the ones to get it."