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.