Protesters camp out to fight sale of main post office

Nathaniel Solley/Staff

Approximately 20 to 30 protesters have been camping overnight since Saturday to fight the sale of the historic 99-year-old post office on Allston Way in Downtown Berkeley.

Even though the U.S. Postal Service remains firm on its final decision to sell the building on Thursday, activists say they are rallying to raise awareness of the larger issue of turning publicly controlled property to private ownership. The overnight protesters followed a rally on Saturday afternoon, which drew around 100 attendees.

Mike Wilson of Strike Debt Bay Area, one of the two main local groups spearheading the protest, says that activists have given up on trying to stop the sale through the petitions and appeals process.

“The only other method we can think of is to show a physical commitment to holding this space,” Wilson said.

Since Saturday night, between 20 to 30 people — mostly middle-aged Berkeley residents — have been camping in tents pitched on the steps outside the post office. Community members cook and donate food for protesters. As pedestrians walk by, activists stationed at tables talk and answer questions in hopes of garnering support for their campaign.

Wilson said no police officers have told the activists to take down their tents or vacate the premises so far.

“We appreciate that they feel that strongly about the post office,” said Augustine Ruiz, a regional Postal Service spokesperson, of the protesters pitching tents.

Despite his understanding of protesters’ concerns, Ruiz said that keeping ownership of the entire 57,000-square-foot building is not economically viable, because the Postal Service only needs 4,000 square feet due to declining mail volume. According to Ruiz, the Postal Service’s first preference is to sell the building to an outside owner and lease the front section for the continued use by the Postal Service.

Protesters are pointing to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 as the cause of many of the Postal Service’s financial problems. The act forces the service to prefund its retiree health benefit fund for the next 75 years by making payments of $5.5 billion a year until 2016.

The act is just one of several causes of the Postal Service’s financial troubles, Ruiz said, also citing the decline in first-class mail as a reason for cost-cutting measures.

Wilson said that members of his organization will continue to protest after the building is sold by picketing prospective construction companies and businesses involved with the redevelopment.

“We are going to make sure that people know that we still consider this ours — even after it’s sold and redeveloped,” Wilson said. “So it’s not going to be a good place for business.”

Some city officials have also been vocal about their opposition to the sale. Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin put forward a proposal for a zoning overlay on the historic district to restrict it to civic, community or cultural use only. If passed by the planning commission, the City Council would be able to vote on the proposal in the future.

“It’s a good idea,” said Harvey Smith, a Save the Berkeley Post Office spokesperson, of Arreguin’s proposal. “The (building) is in the public sector which we all paid for with our taxes and should remain that way.”

Contact Grace Wu at [email protected]