Palo Alto interested in buying downtown post office | February 24, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 24, 2012

Palo Alto interested in buying downtown post office

City to appraise downtown site, consider possible uses for historic building

by Gennady Sheyner

As the U.S. Postal Service prepares to place Palo Alto's historic post office on the market, local officials are trying to make sure the city remains near the top of the cash-strapped agency's list of potential buyers.

At Monday night's public hearing on the sale, the City Council signaled its strong interest in the 1932 building when it voted 7-0, with Greg Scharff and Karen Holman absent, to direct staff to appraise the property at 380 Hamilton Ave. and to begin evaluating possible uses for the site. City officials also plan to reach out to the decision makers in Washington to ensure Palo Alto remains in the mix as a potential buyer.

The hearing was the postal service's first chance to discuss with the public its plan for the downtown post office. As the Weekly reported in December, the agency is looking to sell the property and move its operations to a smaller location as part of its nationwide plan to cut costs. James Wigdel, spokesman for the postal service, said the agency had a $5.8 billion shortfall last year and is anticipating an even larger one this year.

The main reason for the budget crunch is changing consumer habits, with customers increasingly shifting to the Internet, Wigdel said. In 2006, the postal service processed 213 billion pieces of mail. The number dropped to 168 billion last year and is expected to plummet further, to between 118 billion and 150 billion by 2020. First-class mail, Wigdel said, is simply going away.

"We have to be able to cover our expenses, and so far we're having some financial difficulties because of the decline of first-class mail," Wigdel said.

Postal service officials held out the possibility that a post office will remain at its present location, though under this scenario it would occupy a much smaller portion of the Hamilton Avenue building than it currently does. The building has about 20,000 square feet of floor space. The postal service is looking to occupy only about 3,500 square feet.

Wigdel stressed that Palo Alto residents will still have a post office, though it might be a smaller one and at a different location.

"This is not a closure of the Palo Alto Hamilton station," Wigdel said. "It's a relocation.

"The community will still have the same retail services, the same P.O. boxes, everything that is available to them today. It just may not be in the Palo Alto Hamilton Station going forward."

The final decision, he said, will be made at the agency's headquarters in Washington. But even if officials choose to relocate the post office, they probably won't move it too far, said Diana Alvarado, property manager for the agency.

"We'd probably narrow it down to (within) three or four city blocks or even, if we could stay on Hamilton, that would be very beneficial to us because we do like the location."

Councilman Pat Burt suggested to the postal-service officials that the agency will have a hard time finding affordable space to rent in downtown Palo Alto, a place known for high prices and low vacancies.

"Why wouldn't you want to simply shrink it and stay where you are?" Burt asked, "Why wouldn't it be your first choice?"

Councilman Sid Espinosa called the Birge Clark-designed post office a "gorgeous building" and one that is historically significant to the city. But while he advocated preserving the building, he also urged staff to consider "creative uses" for areas around the building, including the parking lot. Councilwoman Gail Price asked staff to appraise the site, consider ways to adapt the space for other functions and plan strategically for its future. The rest of the council voted to support her proposal.

"I think this is a great opportunity for us to be creative," Price said. "This is a key facility and location — a very important site within the City of Palo Alto.

"For us to fully engage in the discussion, it seems that critical information at this point is an independent assessment of the value of the site before us."

Members of the public expressed a range of emotions about the post office's plan. Some conveyed sorrow at the potential closure of the iconic branch and others said they were heartened by the thought that, pending the agency headquarter's decision, there is still a chance the building won't be sold. City resident Priscilla Bates said she wouldn't object to the site's redevelopment as long as there's a post office downtown, at or near the existing site.

"To me it's an ideal location for the post office, and I hope it doesn't have to move anywhere else," Bates said. "I'd definitely like to see the post office remain where it is in some form. If it means using less of the building, that makes sense to me."

Another resident, Jean Bozeman, called the building "unique" and said it speaks to the city's "architectural soul." She said she's saddened to see a building that was built during the Great Depression get sold during another economic downturn and cited the building's "significance to architectural heritage to Palo Alto."

"It's the scale and also the setbacks and the landscape and the classic design that are really emblematic of Palo Alto and what it's been for the past 80 years," Bozeman said.

Members of the public have until March 7 to submit their comments to the postal service about the planned sale of the Hamilton Avenue branch. Comments should be sent to Diana Alvarado, Pacific Facilities Service Office, 395 Oyster Point Blvd., Suite 225, South San Francisco, CA 94080-1930.


Like this comment
Posted by Kabuki-In-Palo-Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2012 at 7:41 am

> "I think this is a great opportunity for us to be creative,"
> Price said. "This is a key facility and location -- a
> very important site within the City of Palo Alto.

Gee .. insight that we could only get from a City Council Member.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for a change for those folks who claim to be our political "betters" to have some suggestions for this building's use, should it fall in the City's hands? Otherwise, these proceedings are little more than low-value theater.

It also would be interesting to see what justification the City would have if it wanted to purchase this building, and build a new police station too.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

This article poses many more questions than answers.

Does the city have the money to buy the premises? Where would it get such money? What use would the building have? What changes would need to be made to the building for this change of use? Would the public still have access to the building or would it be used solely for those who worked there?

Why can't the USPS keep the building and rent out the space they don't need to coffee and retail space? It would be a lovely place to sit and have lunch, morning or afternoon coffee, as part of a trip to the Post Office or a neighboring venue. In fact, downtown is one place where a Subway or deli would be welcome!

Like this comment
Posted by Dave
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

Is this a future police and fire admin building site?

Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2012 at 9:08 am

When this story first broke, I said it would become "Roth Building II".

Once again, Palo Alto meets my expectations.

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Staffer
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2012 at 10:46 am

An opportunity to expand the tax base will be thrown out the window.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

Unless the city has a valid use for the property I see no point in them wasting any money - our money - on it. I agree we should keep it due to its historic merit but we should focus on bringing business to it and therefore tax. The city just conjuring up a use wastes money and tax potential.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 22, 2012 at 11:59 am

Come on … the pirates of this country are looking to break up and sell the postal service to private interests that now have all the rest of our money and will use these resources to further invest overseas and impoverish this country.

Selling off nice expensive resources at giveaway prices because of false economic crises is par for the new American course.

Then .. we will also get hit with the cost of renting or buying a new building at inflated prices … remember the old building was built in the 20's … and has long since been paid off. The only cost of that building is maintenaince and heating it, which they do 24 hours with the windows in front always open.

Any new building will not be as functional or as big. At peak times there are lines filling up this building … not to mention how are they going to get a new building with enough space for all the PO boxes.

We have just plain mass insanity in our government as they hand out these fictional narratives about why they have to take everything from the American people and destroy the very idea of the public.

Like this comment
Posted by m
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 22, 2012 at 12:11 pm

If it has to be sold (we have no backbone to preserve value as a nation), I hope the city will buy it and try different uses. It would be a great dance hall.

Like this comment
Posted by mark samson
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm

One of the nice things about living in Palo Alto is that is still has a few really nice old historic structures, like the buildings at, or around, Stanford University, for example; however, to simply demolish the old Post Office and then use it for a parking lot is simply so shallow minded and short sighted, it's revolting. That old beautiful building is a treasure, and can be useful and lovely in an area, that is changing so fast as to lose forever, some of its (not our) lovely past object that are so different than anything that will replace it: once it is gone, it is gone forever. Can't get it back. To have something like that old but lovely building to preserve and hand down to the next generation of Palo Alto citizens is a treasured gift to the future, instead of blight which will only bring more resentment from those who follow us.

Like this comment
Posted by Judy
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Right now the City is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renting space on Hamilton Avenue for the Planning Department and Building permits.

They should end their lease arrangement in that location and move the Planning Department, Mapping and Building Permits into the old Post Office.

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Wasn't the meeting last night (Tuesday, 2/21)? The second paragraph said it occurred on Monday, or did I go to the wrong meeting?

Like this comment
Posted by Carol
a resident of University South
on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I agree with Anon who warned that "...Selling off nice expensive resources at giveaway prices because of false economic crises is par for the new American course. Then .. we will also get hit with the cost of renting or buying a new building at inflated prices … remember the old building was built in the 20's … and has long since been paid off...."

Why can't the USPS keep it, reduce their footprint within the building, and rent out the rest?

Like this comment
Posted by trudy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm

The reason the post office is in financial trouble is the idiotic law that requires it to fund its pensions and health care for decades ahead. How can Palo Alto online be so uninformed?

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:17 pm

How about fixing the buildings the City already owns? City infrastructure is in sad state to say the least. The post office is a great building but it needs a ton of work and because of its status the City would face a huge battle if they were going to change or modify it's current looks.
One week the City is saying how broke they are and now they are going to waste more money on a study to possibly purchase this building.

Like this comment
Posted by Lazlo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Keene and Klein say we have "skyrocketing" and "unsustainable" projected city deficits, so where is this magical money coming from to claim the city will be a major bidder on this property and why are our tax dollars being spent to study possible uses for a building that they have no money to purchase? The city hsn't had a balanced budget in over 15 years and yet they spend money like teenage girls with a credit card.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 22, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I think the City should buy the building and turn it into another branch library - we don't have enough branches...

Seriously, it's a beautiful building and I hope it get repurposed in such a way that the public can still enjoy it.

Like this comment
Posted by Steven
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Let's use the money to fix our crumbling streets and messed up bike infrastructure first. We just built a new building downtown to house the library and various community events. I think it would make a great bookshop (remember those), McDonald's or Panda Express tho.

Like this comment
Posted by SaveOurPostOffices
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Corrections: The main reason for First class mail reduction is, as always, the recession. The perceived drop is exacerbated by the fact that 2006 was the highest year ever for USPS, which happens to add service the size of Chicago every year. USPS has survived numerous technical "challenges" over the centuries; the internet is not its enemy, nor its replacement.

We can discuss at another time why they're trying to close 10% of post offices - when they need more facilities to serve new customers and sell new stamps. For now, please note the following:

The postal representative failed to mention that, in 2006, the USPS was handed a unique $5.5 billion annual debt, which is solely responsible for its current fiscal crisis. In truth, restoring last year's debit would create a $220 million surplus - a big number for an agency that is only supposed to break even.

Briefly, new legislation promises to break this death grip, but we have to act fast. And you have to slow them down, because USPS management couldn't care less who buys after they leave. They are leaving and selling as fast as they can.

First, we recommend deluging Ms. Alvarado et al with FOIA requests for their accounting data. Then, prepare to appeal their claim that the change is a "relocation." Then, prepare to appeal the subsequent PRC decision declining jurisdiction because it's not officially a "closure."

Finally, join our current DC District Court action. We understand that our action is the first occasion to hold the PRC accountable for failing to honor its mission to regulate the USPS.

Direct our Senators and your Congressperson to support HR3591 and S1853, which release the USPS from its burdensome and fallacious $5.5 billion obligation. Among other things, this law will restore proper, pre-2006 USPS accountability. Direct them to get Treasury to repay to the USPS its current $6.9 billion overpayment, in addition to the other $50 billion+ that the USPS has overpaid to date.

The USPS has supported itself since 1982 (technically) and 1792 (in fact), entirely through sales of postal products - no subsidies (unlike airlines, auto makers, financial institutions, et al). Depending on whose numbers you read, savings projected by closures and consolidations amount to some .04 to .07 percent of its entire budget. For less than 1% savings, USPS management is removing 10% of their profit centers!

Only if every affected community stands strong can we stop the erosion of the most efficient and least expensive postal system in the world - which is also the most trusted public service in the United States.

Please consider signing our petition (We'll sign yours): Web Link

Consider reading our story - it's like yours (and Ukiah's): Web Link

Consider setting up a Facebook page: Web Link

Please consider reading the main resource site: Web Link

Thank you for your time.