Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 23, 2011

Sale of Palo Alto post office prompts nostalgia, uncertainty

Historic building could be used for another public facility or rezoned for commercial use

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto's downtown post office opened in 1932 on Hamilton Avenue, it was like no other post office in the nation.

Designed by local architect Birge Clark, the building showcased all the notable features of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that Clark helped popularize in the second and third decades of the 20th century — a smooth, stucco exterior, copious arches and tiled roof.

But while the design looked like it would fit right at home in Palo Alto, where there are nearly a hundred Birge Clark buildings, it seemed a bit too Spanish (or at least too Californian) for the U.S. Postal Service. When Clark went to Washington, D.C., to present his blueprints, the postmaster general — looking for something more traditional and "stately" — ridiculed his design, according to an account from the Palo Alto History Project. Clark's associate Joseph Ehrlich recalled that the postmaster pushed away the blueprints and said: "Don't you know what a U.S. post office looks like?"

Minutes later, however, Clark told him that President Herbert Hoover, an old friend with whom he'd had breakfast, already gave the go-ahead, and the postmaster relented. When the post office at 380 Hamilton Ave. opened, it became the first building to be designed specifically for this use, said Palo Alto Historian Steve Staiger.

"It's a beautiful building. The federal government wasn't used to doing buildings like that," Staiger said. "It was the first post office that was purposefully built to be a post office. The previous post offices in town had been always rental buildings."

After eight decades of fulfilling the role for which it was designed, the building is now poised for major change. As the Weekly first reported on PaloAltoOnline.com last Friday, the U.S. Postal Service plans to sell the building next year and move its operations to a smaller facility in a location to be determined. James Wigdel, spokesman for the postal service, said the building is about twice as large as necessary.

The building's sale is part of a nationwide effort the cash-strapped agency is undertaking to cope with years of multi-billion dollar deficits. It also plans to sell its buildings in Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay and move operations to smaller branches.

Wigdel told the Weekly all the services of Hamilton Avenue office would continue in the new branch. But several residents who were patronizing the downtown post office this week said they were disappointed about the proposed change, which could significantly transform one of Palo Alto's best-known downtown icons.

Resident Shannon Griscom, who was downtown Tuesday afternoon, called the building "an architectural treasure" and lamented the fact that future residents will not get to experience the building performing the function for which it was designed. She said she was saddened by the U.S. Postal Service's decision.

"This is the type of building that makes people appreciate a place like Palo Alto," Griscom said. "It feels like we're selling our history."

At the same time, the sale creates new opportunities for developers and city officials in a choice downtown location just a block from City Hall. The site is zoned PF (public facility). This means the new site will either continue to house a public facility or get rezoned to accommodate other uses, Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams said. In either event, the buyer of the property would have to proceed with caution and clear various procedural hurdles before modifying the building, which is listed on both the city's inventory of historical buildings and the U.S. Department of Interior's National Register of Historic Places.

If the building were to be rezoned, it would probably be used for commercial or office uses, much like other facilities in the surrounding area, he said. Sometimes developers who purchase land zoned for public use include an option in their agreement that allows them to walk away from the sale if they fail to get the zone change, Williams said.

The fact that the building is historical and that it's owned by a public agency could complicate the sale and extend the timeline for its completion.

"When most agencies sell public property, there's a pretty elaborate process that includes, among other things, offering it to other public agencies first," Williams said.

Councilman Pat Burt said he is interested in exploring other public uses for the historic building, including as a possible site for the Development Center. The city currently leases space for its permitting operations at 285 Hamilton Ave., across the street from City Hall. The site's zoning designation could lower the building's appraised value and allow the city to get a good deal.

Burt does not, however, expect the building to help the city with its long and thus far unsuccessful search for a new police headquarters. The building would not meet the seismic requirements for a public-safety building, he said.

He hopes the facility could remain public, though.

And while the transition would surely impact downtown Palo Alto, Burt noted that the sale was prompted by factors far outside the city's control.

"It's an historic building for Palo Alto, and it's a very attractive building, and I'm assuming and hoping that it would remain with the same design," Burt said, "But other than that, the fact that the postal service is going to sell it is driven by issues way beyond Palo Alto."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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