Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 17, 2012

Downtown post office set to hit market in May

U.S. Postal Service plans to relocate to a smaller facility in Palo Alto

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's iconic downtown post office, a fixture on Hamilton Avenue for the past 80 years, will hit the real-estate market by the U.S. Postal Service in May, according to a new report from the city. And Palo Alto officials are eying the historic building for possible use by the city.

As the Palo Alto Weekly first reported in December, the U.S. Postal Service is looking to sell the Birge Clark-designed building at 380 Hamilton Ave. as part of its plan to cut costs and adjust to changing consumer behavior. Representatives from the cash-strapped agency will host a public hearing on the sale at the City Council meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 21.

But even as it plans to sell the building, the U.S. Postal Service says it's committed to keeping a post office downtown. In the report Steven Turner, Palo Alto's advanced-planning manager, notes the agency has expressed a preference to retain between 3,000 and 3,500 square feet in the existing building.

Another alternative is moving to another location in or near downtown Palo Alto. Diana Alvarado, the agency's property manager, wrote in a Dec. 26 letter to the city that the postal service is looking for a smaller building within the city limits of Palo Alto. It would "house retail services within the 94301 ZIP Code area."

The Tuesday meeting will be followed by a 15-day comment period to gather input from residents. Turner wrote in the new report that "staff expects USPS to put the site up for sale on a competitive basis on or after May 15."

While the building's location near City Hall and the business-filled downtown area should make it an attractive location for office developments, Palo Alto officials are also considering the site for public uses. At the council's Jan. 21 strategic retreat, Councilman Larry Klein asked staff to consider the possibility of using the 20,000-square-foot facility for the city's new public-safety building. Councilman Pat Burt had earlier proposed the idea of purchasing the building and relocating the city's Development Center there. The city currently leases space across the street from City Hall for its permitting operation.

The site's zoning designation should work in the city's advantage. The site is zoned "Public Facilities," which means permitted uses are limited to "government, public utility, educational, community service or recreational facilities." According to a fact sheet released by the city this week, the site can also accommodate "conditional uses" such as administrative offices for nonprofit organizations, recreational uses and day care centers.

The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which greatly limits a potential developers' ability to make major modifications. According to Turner's report, Alvarado indicated to staff that, because of the building's historic status, it would not be demolished.

The downtown post office is believed to be the first in the nation to be designed and built specifically for post-office use. A prominent local example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, it features arcades, a stucco exterior and a red-tiled roof.

Postal Service spokesman James Wigdel had previously told the Weekly that he expects the sale of the building to take several months. Earlier this month, Wigdel stressed that the Hamilton station "is not closing or being discontinued, it is simply relocating to another space that will represent a right-sizing to current standards of space and operations."

"All operations from the existing Hamilton Station, including P.O. Boxes, will be housed in the replacement facility," Wigdel's statement said.

Alvarado attributed the decision to "right size" the downtown operation to economic and consumer trends. The agency is also looking to close more than a thousand post offices across the nation.

"Despite significant cost reductions, the Postal Services continues to experience a net loss," Alvarado wrote in her December letter to the city. "Economic drivers that generate mail volume continue to reflect the sluggish economy and changes in customer behavior indicate the ongoing migration of electronic communications."

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

Comments

Posted by Rich Yep, a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:24 am

As someone who was born and raised in Palo Alto, I am glad the old post office won't be torn down (right?)! Given how many older residents have gone to that building, I think it should be turned into something for seniors in the community.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:34 am

Considering this is a beautiful building, I would hate to see it turned into offices that the public doesn't get to see. Please can we use it innovatively and not hide it away just for a few employees to use.

I would like to see something like a food court with several eateries and coffee shops with shared dining facilities, perhaps wifi and in summer a venue for local musicians to play and entertain. In other words, community space we can all use but still bring in income to the new owners!


Posted by Mike, a resident of University South
on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:39 am

Why doesn't congress raise postal rates?


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:56 am

I really hate the idea that we are losing the downtown Post Office, this is baloney.


Posted by Jenna, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:00 am

Can the post office just stay in the same building and downsize? The rest of the building can house other facilities. Maybe two or three different facilities can share the same building....


Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:06 am

Progress is progress. Glad to see the old building will remain standing just the same. I'm sure they'll put it to good use. And everybody relax, the article states that there will still be a post office downtown. Little or no disruption in the way business is done.


Posted by MT, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:26 am

We should all stop writing e-mails and start communicating is hand writing to save the post office.

Anyway, our era won't leave any paper trail to the future generations and there will be nothing to display in the museums. Maybe worn-out keyboards and cracked iPads...


Posted by Julian, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:52 am

@Jenna - great idea!


Posted by ten18, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:58 am

@MT - interesting point regarding our legacy - I love going through the old postcards that my grandmother sent to her teenage friends at the turn of the 20th century - a computer-age form of Facebook I guess? In the future, looking at your ancestor's old emails and social network postings just won't have the same kind of romance.


Posted by ten18, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:59 am

"Pre computer- age" is what I meant to say . . .


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Looks like an excellent location for PA Police Headquarters.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 17, 2012 at 5:35 am

Anonymous I saw the Police were looking for a new building but I think they need something much bigger, and if you recall the old Palo Alto Police building, now Las Avenidas was about the same size and charm as the Post Office.

It would be nice but I doubt it can happen.

I think this is another private giveaway because when you think about it, that Post Office has been there since like the 20's it is surely paid off and the only major costs is probably maintenance and heating it - because they keep it warm all night even with the windows open in the front.

So Marrol telling everone to relax is really counter-productive, why not just tell them not to express their opinions, or better yet take your own advice.

The point is that any new building is going to have initital costs, and then the cost to buy it or rent it that might be even greater at some point that the money they get from selling the old building.

I think this is a calculated move to take the postal service down in the public's estimation, as the Post Office is one of the nicer charming buildings in Palo Alto and a status symbol for the Postal Service. During the holidays long lines form almost filling up that building that in a newer smaller building will be a real miserable pain in the neck.

Go look at some of the other Post Offices around, like in Mountain View that are very small, they are disorganized, dirty and obviously have little pride taken in them.

This is bad decision that I think is going to end up putting more pressure eventually on the Post Office to privatize, which is probably what those who tell us to relax really want, but it will cost us more money and give us worse service.

The attack on anything public and the movement to eviscerate the idea of the public in this country really disgusts me.


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Feb 17, 2012 at 8:16 am

Post Office-->Public Safety Building

The concept must be explored.

All police services do not have to be in one facility. It is common knowledge that the existing space the police department has in City Hall is woefully inadequate.

Numerous cities have more than one location for their police services operations.

It may be that with some major adjustments to the post office building, and concommitant re-design of the space the police department occupies in City Hall, we can meet our objectives at a much lower cost than what it would cost to build an entirely new facility, as was being considered along Park Street.

I just worry about the fate of the Farmer's Market.


Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

Perfectly relaxed thank you and on this issue, time to move on. The post office will still be operating at I'm sure a smaller and more efficient downtown location. For every occasion during the holidays where there might be a long line at the current location, the majority of the time the facility is sparsely used. If it was still busy and viable all the time they wouldn't be selling the property. Again, I'm happy that the building will be retained. That's more than enough to preserve the history and charm. Otherwise mail your letters and packages somewhere else. No big deal.


Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm

We should certainly explore every option that relates to potential locations for a new public safety building. However, having the facility divided, as Mr. Losch suggests, could have its own share of problems. Most police departments with secondary facilities are developed that way due to size and geographic responsibility. Large cities must have multiple facilities, or sub-stations, in order to provide adequate service and coverage. Very few if any small agencies like Palo Alto are housed in two different locations. A small off-site work station perhaps, but not a separate station. I would imagine that a smaller department relies on pooling resources, efficient communication, and people having to work together across the board to get the job done. I think this is especially true now due to the cutbacks in personnel and resources that public safety has faced. Having their resources divided might not be the most effective approach in Palo Alto's case.

Again, I'm all for exploring every option, but I suspect that there are many variables involved in a decision like this that most people aren't considering. Operating a police or fire station can't be like running a retail establishment or private business. Most people agree that the city requires an updated, adequate facility to serve our public safety needs. The difficult part is going to be trying to find a balance of meeting that need, and doing so economically.


Posted by Lazlo, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 17, 2012 at 5:02 pm

The Palo Alto Post Office will go to the highest bidder on the real estate market.If you want to spend your tax money to support yet another historical building with the same disregard as the city has handled the Roth Building, spend away. The current city manager and city council have no respect for Palo Alto history and would just as soon see another four story ugly glass building adorn the site. What a pity!


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Feb 17, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Marrol,

I think we are on the same page.

I merely suggested that the possibility of having some police services housed at the Post Office building, and others in a re-designed facility at City Hall should be evaluated.

It could be feasible, it also is possible that it is not. I am no expert on how a police department operates. Like everything else in Palo Alto, there would be push back around this question from both advocates and opponents.

This is why Palo Alto has so many consultants come into the picture, which of course raises the hackles of many in town.

I am of the opinion that the public safety building proposed for Park Street a few years back will not happen. The police department still needs some serious facility improvement, and this may be an opportunistic way to make that happen, and at a lower cost.

It should be explored.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 18, 2012 at 5:16 am

> If it was still busy and viable all the time they wouldn't be selling the property

You do not know that.

This is most likely not an economic decision but a political one, pushed on the Post Office by the Republicans after they pushed on the Post Office the retirement obligations and other policies that make the USPS appear bad to appeal to the Post Office haters.

The Post Office does a great job, and the idea that a smaller building is going to be cheaper to operate enough so that forever the little money they gain from the sale of the Post Office is going to be significant is probably false. As I said, this building is old and paid for, what are the costs?

So they sell this building, and then lease or buy another smaller building at higher rates and make some immediate cash cash that they eventually spend while giving a lower level of service.

Someone mentioned where do all the Post Office boxes go? In fact I used to have a PO box in the Palo Alto Post Office about 20 years ago and there were not enough even at that time. So, a new Post Office is not going to be insignificant in cost, and renovation, and operation.

It is the people who never use or do not really think about the Post Office who think this is a good idea, the very people who should have nothing to say about it.


Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 18, 2012 at 7:54 am

Everyone should have a voice in a matter that involves a public agency. No one should be excluded from the conversation simply because someone happens to disagree with them. People can agree to disagree, and on this matter, I maintain that this is a positive and timely move. I also happen to draw my opinions from someone who utilizes the facility and has held a P.O. Box there for many years.

I truly believe this move has nothing to do with a political conspiracy and everything to do with cost cutting. The post office is struggling financially. The downtown post office is on valuable property with a beautiful old building that will draw top dollar. The fact that it's likely paid for only maximizes the profit from the sale. With two other post offices in town, one being a very large facility on East Bayshore Road, there is not a need for another large facility downtown. Palo Alto can do just fine with a smaller post office. Besides, it's a done deal.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2012 at 8:44 am

The purpose built post office buildings in the UK were sold a decade or so ago and the post offices moved into retail space, sharing facilities with convenience stores. The post office desk was one side of the store and could close independently of the hours of the convenience stores. It seems to work well, people buy their lunchtime snacks at the same time as their stamps.

The easily recognisable post office buildings are now furniture salerooms, office space or whatever and still look like post offices to me.


Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Anon,
I logged on to say something and now you have said it well for me.

Yes, you are right. The post office was doing quite well until 2006 when the Republican-dominated Congress changed the rules so they can't be viable. For one, as you indicated, they have to PRE-fund pensions for future employees. 2006, by the way, was a record year for mail volume, despite online communication and banking having been well established. The post office fills a niche for which there are no competitors. Many small businesses in this nation -- small businesses create the most jobs (NOT the richest 1%) -- depend on the post office.

Bill Moyers program has been interviewing some big league Republicans who were instrumental in the Reagan policies, and they're repenting, basically. Read David Stockman's latest book (he was Reagan's budget director). Another former official said in his interview that these ideologues that hate our government (and no, I'm not talking about AlQaeda, I'm talking about rightwing), slash regulators and regulations, then when they prove ineffective, the ideologues say "government" doesn't work and slash them again.

It's a power play, of course. All this funneling of money out of the public sector and the middle class to the richest few is a because of and for a dismantling of democracy - a dismantling of the balance to concentrations of wealth our democracy created. If we do nothing, at some point, that balance cannot be regained. (That's when revolutions happen - and I don't mean made up revolutions ala Gingrich, I mean the kind with torches and pitchforks.)

I think you understand, but people who care about having a first-world civilization need to work a little harder to protect it.

I think the economy will rebound, and so will the mail. And it's penny wise and pound foolish for the Post Office to have to sell the Hamilton station.


Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

The problems at the U.S. Postal Service are many and deep. Here is a short article from the NY Times that describes some of them.

Web Link

Union contracts (no layoffs, overly generous benefits)are at the heart of the problem. Sound familiar?


Posted by Jenna, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Can the post office just stay in the same building and downsize? The rest of the building can house other facilities. Maybe two or three different facilities can share the same building....


Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Jenna,

I don't know the Post Office strategy, per se, but its reality and fixed asset division is probably looking to raise cash very quickly, given all its problems (see my post, above). It may, for example, look to rent space in a currently empty retail building in Downtown. I believe they did this in Los Altos, a couple of years ago.

The US Postal Service is facing fundmental problems, and its downsizing is inevitable. Palo Alto would be very fortunate, if a developer agrees to buy the existing Hamilton Ave. building, and keep its basic look.


Posted by POed, a resident of Professorville
on Feb 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm

So what are they going to do about the PO boxes? The USPS has not said anything one way or the other. Those with PO boxes will need to send out change of address notifications if the new post office will not continue this service. If the PO boxes are to be moved, customers still need to be notified. I would assume that the USPS at least has some idea of what they want to do and are not just making all this up as they go along. If they have plans in place, the details should have been communicated a long time ago.


Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm

POed,

The transition in Los Altos was pretty smooth, I think. I was there last week, and they have plenty of P.O. boxes to rent. There are also plently of private post officee boxes available.

It's a non-issue, I believe.


Posted by Pony Express, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2012 at 12:17 am

This is a phoney, straw man problem. It's a giveaway to developers, who are frothing at the mouth. Why not, as some have suggested, have the Post Office segregate the space it needs, and leave the rest to development.


Posted by Helen, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2012 at 1:47 pm

One of the last original Palo Alto buildings standing. Please leave it as it is and don't tear it town. Palo Alto is losing it's charming history and style due to rich people who move in and want to change everything. Why not put the building on some type of historic registar??


Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2012 at 2:07 pm

"Why not, as some have suggested, have the Post Office segregate the space it needs..."

Probably because the asset managers at the U.S. Postal Service figure that it doesn't pencil for them. They can get more return on value from selling the entire building then downsizing to a smaller place.

The problems at the U.S. Postal Service are neither phoney nor straw man. They are real.


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