Palo Alto lobbies USPS to sell downtown post office to city
Letter from city lists 'considerable benefits' of maintaining the historic building for public use
Seeking to preserve the historic downtown post office for public use, Palo Alto officials last week submitted a letter of interest to the United States Postal Service (USPS) expressing the city's desire to buy the Birge Clark-designed building.
Calling the Hamilton Avenue building a "focal point of community identity and architectural character in the downtown area," the letter from Mayor Yiaway Yeh includes a variety of reasons for why the cash-strapped Postal Service should sell the iconic building to the city.
For one, the site at 380 Hamilton Ave. is zoned "public facilities," which the letter points out is "designed to accommodate governmental, public utility, educational, community service and recreational uses." The post office's location, the letter from Yeh states, makes it "an ideal site for a variety of public uses."
"Palo Alto has both short and long term needs for additional space," the letter states.
The building is in close proximity to other city buildings, including City Hall, the Downtown Library and the Development Center, which is housed in leased space across the street from City Hall. If Palo Alto were to buy the building from the Postal Service, it would consider moving the permitting operation from the leased space to the iconic building.
"Many of Palo Alto's fee-supported departments are currently leasing privately owned off-site space, and consolidating these functions in a new City-owned building would have both operational and financial benefits."
The City Council has been eying the 1932 building since December, when USPS declared its decision to put it on the market. The building features many characteristics of the Colonial Revival style, including arcade frontage, a tiled roof and a stucco exterior. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means that any attempt to alter it would have to undergo a strenuous historic-review process.
The March 22 letter from Yeh also notes the building would support the city's ongoing effort to update its infrastructure, the council's focus this year.
"Securing a centrally located building for future public opportunities has been identified as an important long-term infrastructure goal," the letter states.
The sale is part of a nationwide initiative by the USPS to cut costs. The service had a $5.8 billion shortfall last year and is expecting an even bigger one this year, USPS spokesman James Wigdel told the council Feb. 21.
USPS officials also emphasized that the post office isn't closing but rather relocating to a smaller location somewhere in Palo Alto. One alternative is leasing a small space in the existing building. Officials have said they need only about 3,500 square feet of space for the post office's operation. The downtown building has about 20,000 square feet of floor space.
To purchase the post office, the city could use funds from Stanford University, which pledged $23 million to the city as a "public benefit" in exchange for the city's approval last year of the massive expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the Weekly.
Emslie told the council Monday he expects a response from the postal service in April or early May. In the meantime, the city is proceeding with a property appraisal, a report on the building's structural condition and a historic assessment.
"The post office continues to reinforce with staff, as they did with the council, their interest in completing a sales transaction quickly on that site," Emslie told the council.
Councilman Pat Burt said it would be important to communicate to the public the city's primary reason for eying the historic building — the potential for long-term cost savings.
"We're not looking at simply acquiring land because we always think we need more land," Burt said. "We're looking to get out of more expensive space that we lease currently."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.