Berkeley residents protest sale of main post office

Gracie Malley/Staff
Community members hold a rally in front of the main post office in Downtown Berkeley to protest the sale of the historic building.

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A new campaign in Berkeley is aiming to convince the U.S. Postal Service to rescind plans to sell the building that houses the city’s main post office in Downtown Berkeley.

About 90 protesters gathered Tuesday on Allston Way at the steps of the post office to voice support for a Berkeley City Council recommendation that asks the postal service to rethink its plan to sell the historic building. The vote to adopt the resolution — originally scheduled to take place after the demonstration on Tuesday night — will occur at a special council meeting on July 31.

Participants of the protest, including the Committee to Save the Berkeley Main Post Office, point to trends toward increasing privatization of government services and infrastructure.

“If you get on the BART and someone lifts your wallet, you get angry,” said Harvey Smith, an organizer for the committee. “Well, (the post office) is a lot more than your wallet.”

Smith and others would like to keep the building, which has notable historic and architectural value, in the public sector. Completed in 1915, the post office is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and contains two pieces of Works Progress Administration artwork, including a mural of early Berkeley history by Suzanne Scheur.

But Postal Service spokesperson Augustine Ruiz insisted the building is here to stay.

“The building has to remain as is, under the guidelines of the (national register),” Ruiz said. “There is a lot that can be done with a building like this and still maintain its historical significance.”

The council recommendation also suggests the possibility of the city purchasing the building.

“I think what’s important is working to try to ensure that the building is used for a public purpose,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who authored the recommendation with Councilmember Susan Wengraf. “The city needs to play a leadership role in finding a buyer who will put forth a public use of the space.”

Arreguín added that he expects the resolution to pass but hopes the postal service will be more forthcoming with its plans regarding the building and the procedure for public input.

“We need to get more information,“ he said. “We need to have more of a dialogue.”

The Postal Service has been criticized for a lack of transparency in other communities facing similar consolidations or sales. However, Ruiz said the Postal Service is obligated to hold a public hearing about the sale, which will take place at a future City Council meeting.

The Committee to Save the Berkeley Post Office has called into question the role of UC Regent Richard Blum, who is the chairman of the board for CB Richard Ellis, the firm that won the contract to serve as the real estate services provider for the Postal Service sales.

Gray Brechin, another organizer for the committee and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, called Blum’s position “an enormous conflict of interest.”

But the real estate firm did not take any part in the nationwide plan to sell off Postal Service property, according to Ruiz.

The sale is part of the U.S. Postal Service’s modified network consolidation plan, which aims to save the organization $1.2 billion annually by consolidating up to 229 mail processing locations over the next two years. According to Ruiz, mail operations in Berkeley would move to the Berkeley Destination Delivery Unit at 1150 8th St., and a smaller, alternate retail space would be leased in the downtown area.

Overall, the Postal Service is facing a $14 billion deficit this year alone. In 2006, Congress passed an act requiring the Postal Service to prepay health care benefits by 2016 to all current employees, as well as employees expected to retire in the next 75 years.

The Postal Service would be the only government agency to generate a modest profit if not for the mandate, which costs it $5.5 billion annually, according to Ruiz.