City moves forward with zoning ordinance on post office

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Melissa Wen/Staff

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Amid controversy over the Downtown Berkeley post office’s impending sale, Berkeley City Council decided at its Tuesday meeting to continue developing a zoning ordinance on the post office building that would narrow the building’s future use to allow only public and nonprofit purposes.

Such an ordinance would subject the 100-year-old post office building, as well as the city’s Civic Center Historic District, to a zoning overlay, which would restrict these spaces to government functions including parks and public schools. Proposed in July, the ordinance is expected to quell council and resident fears that selling the post office building might deprive the city of a public space.

“I don’t want to see a future where the civic center turns into a hub for high end retail,” said Stefan Elgstrand, a UC Berkeley student and intern for City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, during public comment.

The council plans to negotiate with the U. S. Postal Service while pursuing the overlay. But R. Clark Morrison, an attorney who represented the Postal Service at the meeting, alleged that the city of Berkeley has not been open to negotiation and has instead made legal errors that could merit litigation.

“We think that there’s a nuanced solution,” Morrison said during public comment. “Right now, all we see is a sledgehammer.”

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, however, called Morrison’s arguments “legal hogwash” in an interview with The Daily Californian. According to the council, it is the Postal Service that has refused to negotiate.

“We’ve been pleading with them for a year to meet with us and to work with us,” Arreguin said. “It wasn’t until the zoning overlay was on the table that they wanted to work out compromise.”

As a compromise, the council would like the Postal Service to stay in operation at the front of its current building while letting another business use the remaining space.

The council hopes that post office representatives suspend the building’s sale while discussions with the city take place. According to regional Postal Service spokesperson Augustine Ruiz, the Postal Service would also like to share the space. But as of Wednesday, the building is still up for sale, Ruiz said.

An appropriations bill passed this month recommends a halt to such sales until an investigation into the Postal Service’s compliance with relocation requirements is complete. The bill comes at a time of national upset about the sale of historic post offices.

Since the Postal Service announced in 2012 that it would have to close its Downtown Berkeley location due to financial problems, residents have held various protests, including a rally before the meeting last night.

“The post office is the anchor of many communities, including our own,” said Berkeley resident and UC Berkeley alumnus Moni Law. “We are in the frontlines in the battle to preserve our public commons.”

Melissa Wen covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

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