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." If the postal service sells the building to a commercial developer, the letter notes, the parcel would have to be rezoned. The building is also 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 buys the building from the Postal Service, it would consider moving the permitting operation from the leased space to the iconic building.
The building'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. "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 was designed by local architect Birge Clark and 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 that the building would support the city's ongoing effort to update its infrastructure, the council's 2012 focus.
"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 at a Feb. 21 hearing on the subject.
USPS officials also stressed 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.
The city's bid to buy the post office could also benefit from the massive expansion of the Stanford University Medical Center, a $5 billion project that the council approved last year. The development agreement between Palo Alto and Stanford requires the hospitals to provide as a "public benefit" $23 million to the city. These funds could be used to purchase the post office, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the Weekly.
Emslie told the City Council Monday that 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.
"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 Monday.
Councilman Pat Burt stressed on Monday the importance of communicating 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."