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.