Editorial: Golden opportunity to acquire downtown post office

Birge Clark building is surplus, but could be adapted to other uses if price is right

Palo Alto residents have been picking up their mail and buying stamps at the downtown post office since 1932, but change is coming and with the financial meltdown of the Postal Service, 380 Hamilton Ave. is likely to have a new owner before the year is out.

A solid majority of the City Council voted Tuesday to make sure the city is among the bidders when the service chooses who will buy the beautiful and historic 20,300-square-foot building that was designed by Palo Alto's own Birge Clark. The building's distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival style was a Clark trademark, which broke the rules laid down by postal officials at the time. Ultimately it became the first post office ever commissioned to be intentionally designed for the purpose, but was only accepted after the direct intervention of President Herbert Hoover, a friend of Clark's.

During Tuesday's presentation at City Hall, postal officials explained the service's acute nationwide financial problems, which are forcing the sale of Palo Alto's downtown post office and many other buildings elsewhere on the Peninsula and around the country. But while the Postal Service wants to downsize, the officials said they are not abandoning downtown Palo Alto, where they hope to lease about 3,500 square feet of commercial space, either in the old post office or within a few blocks of 380 Hamilton. The council wisely directed its staff to appraise the property and begin evaluating eventual uses for the site, although it is far from clear whether it makes financial sense to purchase the property.

The PF (public facility) zoning at the site must either house a public use or be rezoned for other uses, Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams told the council. Any buyer would have to overcome many procedural hurdles and proceed with caution before modifying the building, which is listed on the city's inventory of historical buildings and the U.S. Department of Interior's National Register of Historic Places. The restrictions would make it difficult to use the building for a private, profit-making use, although it would not be impossible.

The council did not identify a funding source to purchase the building, which in an entirely off-the-cuff estimate, one local developer said could be worth about $6 million or more. The Postal Service is looking for a quick sale and is hoping to put the building on the market in May of this year.

Many of the comments Tuesday spoke about the history and beauty of the building. Councilman Sid Espinosa said the post office is a "gorgeous building," that is historically significant to the city. He urged city staff members to consider "creative uses" for areas around the building, including the parking lot. The council ultimately adopted Councilwoman Gail Price's motion asking staff to appraise the site and consider "adaptive reuse concepts" and "planning strategies" for the site.

On Tuesday the council did not focus on potential uses for the building, but back in December Councilman Pat Burt said he would like to explore making it the site of the Development Center. The city's current center is located in leased space at 285 Hamilton, across the street from City Hall.

Given the possibility that the building's zoning designation and historic rating could lower its price, the city should think creatively about uses for this one-of-a-kind Birge Clark building. One possibility that could help remedy the long-running and so far unsuccessful search for a public safety building would be to move the downtown library to the post office, lease 3,500 square feet back to the Postal Service, and use the library building to house portions of the police department, which is located across the street. With its two prominent entrances, the post office could have its own access to the smaller branch post office, while the library, or some other use compatible with the public facility zoning, could use the other.

Regardless, this beautiful public building should be preserved and given a new life by the city, particularly if it can ease overcrowding at City Hall. Or it could be leased to a tenant who could work with the zoning profile. A good example of the city finding a new purpose for a large building is the Senior Center takeover of the old police station on Bryant Street. Although the police station was vacant for nearly 10 years, the city worked with a citizens group that raised more than $1 million in the early 1970s to refurbish the 16,000-square-foot building that housed all the city's senior programs and continues to do so under the Avenidas banner. It is a good example of how historic city buildings like the post office can be given a new lease on life.

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Like this comment
Posted by paloaltotreewatch
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:14 am

It seems the funds Stanford provided to Palo Alto as compensation for the medical center construction projects should be considered to purchase this facility.

Like this comment
Posted by Just Asking
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:40 am

Could it be used for a new police building?

Like this comment
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:40 am

So, a fiscally strained city should buy a building it's not sure it has use for, because it's pretty? That's a great way to run a city. How about using it for a Palo Alto History Museum? Oh, we already have one of those that we can't fund.

And, after the building is purchased and the budget can't be met, who's the one that will e plain to the newly laid off city employees that the city wanted to buy something shiny instead of run the city properly?

There are hundreds of other useful ways to spend money if the city is running out of ideas.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:44 am

Dear Just Asking -

Unfortunately, that building does not meet the seismic requirements for a public safety building, which has to meet a much stricter code than other types of buildings. It would be very expensive to retrofit it, assuming it were possible to do so. By the time you go through paying for all that, you might have built a building designed for that purpose.

Like this comment
Posted by Lia
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 24, 2012 at 11:02 am

I truly hope this beautiful, historical landmark will not be left vacant too long while a
'feasibility committee' is created. I have witnessed too many historical landmarks sit unattended and abandoned, while groups take years to agree on price and "best use". I am positive this architectural masterpiece is alive with many, many memories for each and everyone of us who've had the opportunity to walk in and be amazed by it's understated elegance. Love This Building.

Like this comment
Posted by Just Asking
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 24, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Thank you, Judith. I very much appreciate your explanation.

In that case, I agree with Lia of Mountain View that people need to brainstorm about how to best use the property, so it's utilized well and quickly. It's a lovely building - and has fond memories for many.

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 25, 2012 at 8:59 am

The city must have an overwhelming, fiscally responsible justification for spending public dollars on this building. It will cost millions. The city must be responsible in the manner in which they allocate these funds, especially since we are in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis. The city still faces annual budget deficits. They have numerous cuts in public safety and deferred vital infrastructure needs, all the while continuing to spend millions on non-essential projects and programs. The city needs to get its financial priorities straightened out before they dive into yet another niche expenditure. Steps can be taken to ensure that the old post office building is preserved short of the city buying it. Again, unless the city can demonstrate that this property will be used to fill a vital infrastructure need, then it's simply something that we can't afford.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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