Downtown Palo Alto post office unveils two new possible locations

Residents have 30 days to comment on proposed relocation plan

Downtown post office patrons will have 30 days starting Thursday, May 28, to comment on a proposed plan to relocate the historic 83-year-old station. Two locations are being considered: a spot on the corner of Alma Street and Addison Avenue and the basement of the existing building, at 380 Hamilton Ave.

But whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) plans to sell the 1932 Birge Clark-designed building, a postal service representative said Thursday.

USPS Real Estate Specialist Dean Cameron addressed about 30 people in the post office lobby against the backdrop of Art Deco postal boxes and Mission-style wood beams and arches to lay out possible locations for the post office.

Residents were definitely unhappy about the proposal to move the post office to 999 Alma St., a 5,300-square-foot brick red-colored building that currently houses the upscale Anthropologie clothing store. That business is moving to Stanford Shopping Center in early 2016, according to a store manager.

Senior residents said the Alma Street location has no parking for workers or patrons, is out of the way and is located on a dangerous street with no nearby crosswalks and no ingress and egress.

And it is unlikely that a crosswalk or light will be installed at that location. The city's Comprehensive Plan prohibits traffic lights between Churchill and Homer avenues, former Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller said.

Keller and others pointed out that leasing another building would not create any stability for the post office. However, the agency may lose its lease when the term expires, and with real estate values so high, the post office may eventually be priced out of the area.

Another proposal would relocate the post office to the basement of the existing building. The City of Palo Alto hired Architectural Resources Group, Inc. to provide conceptual drawings on the feasibility of operating an estimated 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot post office from the basement.

That plan, which was developed in June 2014, illustrates how the post office could function in the western portion of the basement while leaving 6,700 square feet for another tenant. The layout is only one possible interior configuration for the lower-level space, the architects noted.

A dedicated elevator at the rear of the building and staircase on the Hamilton Avenue side would accommodate patrons with limited mobility, postal employees and mail. A post office entrance near the corner of Gilman Street would lead down to the lower level along the Hamilton Avenue side. Thirteen parking spaces, including handicapped parking and a mail truck loading zone would be at the rear of the building.

Mayor Karen Holman said the city is definitely interested in purchasing the building and keeping the post office at the Hamilton site and leasing the basement to the post office.

But the city cannot purchase the building outright, Cameron said, because regulations require the sale must go out for bid.

Several residents expressed concern that the city might be outbid by deep-pocketed tech firms. The last appraisal of the building three years ago valued the property at $6 million to $7 million, but that sum is probably significantly higher now, Cameron said.

However, the three-person committee that will choose the buyer would not be bound to take the highest bid, Cameron added. Other factors, including benefits to the community, might sway the sale decision, he said.

When the postal service will sell the building remains an open question, he added. Technically, including the 30-day comment period, a sale could take place within 60 days, if the committee makes a swift decision. But it could also take two years, Cameron said.

However, any use of the building would require a seismic retrofit to bring the building up to earthquake codes, including if the post office is relocated to the basement, Cameron said. The historical integrity would need to be preserved, he added, since the site is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is subject to any regulation the designation requires, city spokeswoman Claudia Keith said.

The building is on the city's Historic Inventory as a Class 1 -- a top-tier designation under the city's preservation guidelines -- and any changes would undergo city review, Keith added.

The building was the first in the U.S. to be specifically designed and built for postal service use, according to the city's Basement Floor Plan Feasibility Study.

Holman said a covenant being developed with the post office would further retain the historic integrity of the building. The covenant would be added to the deed upon sale by USPS, according to Keith.

USPS has agreed to the covenant with the State Office of Historic Preservation, which constitutes the environmental-review compliance required for the sale, Keith said.

But residents said they don't want a private owner to take over the building and deny public access to the historic portions of the site.

Some also questioned having the post office in the basement.

"Have you been in the basement? It's a dark hole," Susan Richardson said.

Cameron said other sales of post office buildings to private firms have worked out well. But members of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, who attended the Palo Alto meeting, warned that that is not necessarily true.

As recently as March 26, news reports showed graffiti covering the historic post office in Venice, California, which was sold to a private entity and then abandoned. Another historic 1936 post office in Gary, Indiana, was abandoned and seriously damaged, as was the 1937 post office in Crockett, California, according to images the Berkeley citizen group displayed.

The group fought for three years to preserve its historic post office and its New Deal art. The group eventually prevailed through the courts. The case serves as a precedent and an example for other communities that want to save their post offices, member Margot Smith said.

A federal judge found that USPS had multiple violations of the National Environmental Policy and the National Historic Preservation acts. The USPS backed down and took the property off the market, Smith said.

Thursday's meeting is an improvement over past notifications, Cameron said. The USPS recently changed its public notification policy after the USPS Office of Inspector General found the process was not always transparent.

Out of 33 relocation projects it reviewed for fiscal years 2011 through 2013, 25 new site selections were not announced until after the public comment and appeal periods ended. Only one of 25 appeals filed was upheld by postal service officials in charge of the funding and relocation, the Office of Inspector General found.

The postal service also could not readily identify the number of relocations, and officials did not always efficiently manage the public notification and documentation process. The vice president of facilities also had conflicting responsibilities for approving funding and adjudicating relocation appeals, the investigation found.

As a result of the investigation, recommendations were made, including removing the vice president of facilities' dual role, training real estate specialists, and establishing guidelines for more transparent public meetings and input. The Palo Alto meeting is an outgrowth of those findings, Cameron said.

But some residents said the meeting wasn't transparent enough. It was not adequately publicized, and it was held at 11 a.m., a time when many people are working and could not attend, residents said.

The clock is ticking on the 30-day comment period, which ends June 27. Residents asked for an additional public meeting, but it is unclear whether an additional meeting would be granted.

Anyone wanting to comment on the proposed relocation plan must do so in writing. Mail comments to Dean Cameron, Real Estate Specialist -- Implementation Team, 1300 Evans Ave., Ste. 200, San Francisco, CA 94188-8200.

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6 people like this
Posted by Filippo
a resident of The Greenhouse
on May 29, 2015 at 1:02 am

Has the USPS considered doing the seismic retrofit of the building and then continue to use it for its intended purpose? Or are they determined to earn some money through a sale?

1 person likes this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on May 29, 2015 at 8:52 am

Filippo, the Postal Service is selling the building because they are desperately short of cash, not because the building needs a retrofit. They are doing this, or trying to, with many other post offices, too. Everybody uses email nowadays, and a lot of folks have not written a letter in years.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 29, 2015 at 10:15 am

Same issue is going on with the old Berkeley USPS building as well.

17 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 29, 2015 at 11:40 am

>> Filippo, the Postal Service is selling the building because they are desperately short of cash, not because the building needs a retrofit.

This is a crisis manufactured to create a deficit in the future from all the buildings they're going to have to rent, thus making their financials looking bad in the future when they really do not look that bad currently. The people who are behind this out to be outed and this scheme exposed and explained to the public, who just turn off and eyes glaze over they hear anything on this subject.

1 person likes this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Downtown North
on May 29, 2015 at 11:54 am

Why do we need a dedicated post office downtown at all? Mountain View (with 25K more residents) has one main post office, then branches in Nob Hill, in a Storage business near Costco and I think one at Moffet. Put a small branch at City Hall or Whole Foods instead.

5 people like this
Posted by WhereToVote
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 29, 2015 at 12:09 pm

So where and how does one comment on the two proposed locations?
I urge everyone to vote so their preference will be heard.

If we want a Post Office in town, then let's have it put where people can and will use it. I certainly prefer Hamilton to Alma. Access is essentially impossible at Alma. IF it is located there, usage will be so low that that will be the excuse for actually closing it in a few years.

As to basement vs first floor, I prefer first floor. I would like to see where the entrance is or will be if it is in the basement, and then actually try using it.

2 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on May 29, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Would like for CPA to be able to keep our downtown post office and reconfigure as required.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Can't see why the USPS needs a dedicated building anyway. They do need a downtown facility, so why not share with the library, or a drugstore, or a stationery store, or a café, or, or, or....

Sharing with the library makes sense to me, and a place to buy cards would make sense too.

17 people like this
Posted by 40 yr P.O. box patron
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 29, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Having visited the post office for near 40 years daily, I am still in awe of the architectural significance of this building.
if the city of palo alto can make space in the basement, why not make space on the first floor- left side for the P.O. and they can use the full basement for the city.
we would still have the dramatic entryway (left entrance), keep the historic nature of the post office, and the boxes as they are would fit in about 1/4 of the area- after reconfigured, and there would not be any dispute from anyone related to the post office. No lawsuits, etc. This would make all concerns stated at the hearing moot, as the post office would essentially remain the same.
this is all IF the city of palo alto buys the building, and they are certainly going to be outbid significantly by some tech co.
After the meeting, though, it seems that the USPS is just going thru the motions of hearing the public. I dont think they will listen without some strong arming by the public

20 people like this
Posted by Don't miss this sale...
a resident of Green Acres
on May 30, 2015 at 1:13 am

I LOVE the PA Hamilton Post Office!! I grew up in this town, as did my parents and their parents. I can not imagine the building being anything BUT a Post Office, which was the original intention when it was first built.
Our town has been so rearranged over the last 10 years, building by building , it is becoming so' coming and going, buildings becoming sky scrapers....
The PO can sell the basement, but PLEASE keep the original first floor open, especially for us older people who have mobility problems and need the easy access.
Perhaps a dark night club could rent out the bottom of the building...or a restaurant that can be upscale with little candles at the tables for atmosphere......Alma Street is NOT a good option. More input ideas are open..your turn.............................

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2015 at 6:51 am

I have been renting a PO Box at the attractive Hamilton location for 20 years, even though the Cambridge St location is closer to my home and has shorter lines to buy stamps and mail packages. In fact, I rarely pick up mail on Hamilton without spending money at other downtown businesses. So if that location is closed, I am one resident who will be spending less time and money downtown. A location on busy Alma? That is about as appealing as driving to the East Bayshore office and I can't imagine where the large postal trucks would park or turn around. Obviously the location has not been that profitable for Anthropologie. I truly hope the aesthetically appealing and centrally located Hamilton office will be preserved through renting outsections of the property and that another traffic light does not have to be installed on Alma to allows residents to turn left from Addison.

2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2015 at 9:46 am

I love the earlier mentioned idea of moving postal services to the downtown library!

1 person likes this
Posted by dwes
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2016 at 6:15 am

Can't see why the USPS needs a dedicated building anyway. They do need a downtown facility, so why not share with the library, or a drugstore, or a stationery store, or a café, or, or, or....

Sharing with the library makes sense to me, and a place to buy cards would make sense too.
Web Link

13 people like this
Posted by Keep the first floor for the PO
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 23, 2016 at 11:12 pm

By all means rent the basement but keep the first floor as the postoffice. Dismantling Palo Alto institutions one by one is a destructive idea. Please stop it. The reputation of the city government is bad enough. Don't need to add to it.

8 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2016 at 12:19 pm

Another misbegotten offspring of the misguided congressional mandate to commercialize the post office system, which, naturally, requires the post office to divest itself of all historic expensive-to-maintain buildings.

6 people like this
Posted by H
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2016 at 12:12 am

"The building was the first in the U.S. to be specifically designed and built for postal service use." Keep the building as the Post Office. History means something. Proud of Berkeley. And are some of these "share with the downtown library" folks serious? Do they even frequent that library to think this would be feasible? Even the smallest post offices require a minimum of so much dedicated space. What is the post office? Santa's invisible toy shop?

2 people like this
Posted by Its a ruse
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm

The corner of Addison is so unsuitable, it's a ruse to make the other choice inevitable. Alma is a traffic speedway. Clearly it's a plan to close down the PO. Shame on the city for such obvious manipulation.

Put it in the library? then the library can reduce its meager hours and closed days even more. Staff wins, public loses.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighborhood of PO Box user
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 27, 2016 at 12:42 pm

I have had a PO Box here for 40 yrs, and I am at the PO every day.
The Post office says that they only need about 1/4 of the ground floor space. Move the PO boxes to a "W" shape- keeping the historic boxes, and put in a new counter, all on the Waverly side- then install a wall and others could use the balance of the street level floor and all they want in the basement.
This way the Post office doesnt move, and the City of Palo Alto, who is drooling over taking over the site, can use remainder of top floor and basement for the Building Department.
There is no reason the PO should be put in the basement- if the City wants the building so bad, they can have the basement

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

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