Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Donald Trump purchased the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington. The federal government agreed to a 60-year lease with Trump, who plans to transform the building into a luxury hotel. The agreement preserves the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
NEW YORK — The U.S. Postal Service is facing entrenched resistance to its selling of historic post offices, with lawmakers inserting their call for a moratorium on the sales in the recently passed omnibus spending bill.
From California to Connecticut, communities have been opposing the sales, accusing the agency of ignoring federal preservation guidelines and not allowing enough time for public comment.
Reps. JoséE. Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who have post offices for sale in their districts, issued statements last week noting the provisions in the spending bill that support blocking sales until a federal probe of the matter is completed.
“The language in the omnibus appropriations bill is clear: The USPS needs to put sales of historic post offices on hold while we wait to see what the inspector general’s report and the ACHP [Advisory Council on Historic Preservation] reports say,” Serrano said. “I understand the USPS has a serious revenue problem . . .but selling off historic properties to the highest bidder without following the appropriate procedures is completely unacceptable.”
In another twist, Richard C. Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is chairman of the board of the company contracted to sell postal properties.
Lee has criticized the Postal Service’s decision to sell the Berkeley post office and encouraged residents to write to the agency. The City Council has voted to try to stop the sale, and protesters have demonstrated outside the building.
Serrano is outraged over news that the USPS has gone ahead with a request for bids on the Bronx General Post Office building, despite the community’s opposition.
The spending bill passed both houses last week.
Serrano wasn’t certain that the USPS would abide by the language of the appropriations bill, which notes that Congress is “particularly concerned by reports that the Postal Service is attempting to sell off many of its historic properties without regard for preservation of these buildings.”
“At times, the Postal Service has been somewhat aloof in terms of paying attention to what Congress has to say,” Serrano said Thursday.
USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said after the legislation passed, “It would be premature for us to comment until the language has been thoroughly reviewed.”
The Bronx General Post Office is at the center of the latest skirmish. Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president, has opposed the idea of a sale since the USPS proposed it more than a year ago. Still, he said, he was shocked to learn Jan. 13 that the property was listed at www.uspspropertiesforsale.com, and that the deadline for initial bids was two days later, Jan. 15.
“Our priority is for this location to remain a post office,” Diaz said. “However, in light of the fact that the USPS has made an apparent decision to sell the Bronx GPO over our objections, good faith demands that they seek community input on the future of the building. They must solicit the input of community stakeholders before any sale is made.”
The American Postal Workers Union also said it was surprised about the listing of the historic landmark, built during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal. Its lobby is covered with murals from the era.
Connie Chirichello, another USPS spokeswoman, said: “We’re entertaining any offers made on the building, but do we have a ‘for sale’ sign up? No, we don’t. . . . People who are interested know it’s on the market.”
CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate firm and the USPS’s exclusive property agent since 2011, declined to comment.
Feinstein has faced allegations of a conflict of interest because of her husband’s role. But her office said last week that the senator supported the spending bill and that Congress doesn’t choose which companies the USPS selects or which post offices to keep open.
“Senator Feinstein is not involved with and does not discuss any of her husband’s business decisions with him,” her office said. “Her husband’s holdings are his separate property. Senator Feinstein’s assets are held in a blind trust (an arrangement in place before she came to the Senate in 1992).”
The Postal Service must take several steps before selling a building. After announcing a proposal to sell a property, it is required to hold a public meeting and a comment period for feedback. Only then is it allowed to make a final decision about selling.
But the USPS is pushing a proposal to change federal regulation and eliminate the environmental impact report, which would mean cutting the public hearing process.
The sale of post offices will “persist or increase in the foreseeable future,” the Official Federal Register document says.
Eliminating the environmental report could also allow the USPS to avoid local court battles such as the one in Stamford, Conn. In October, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant issued an injunction on the sale of the local post office on the grounds that the public had not been notified properly and given time to comment, and that the Postal Service had not accepted the highest bid, according the Stamford Advocate.
The Bronx post office has an estimated value of $14 million, according to the USPS.
In 2011, the Postal Service transferred most of the work done there to facilities in Manhattan, leaving the borough of nearly 1.5 million people without a mail hub and residents complaining about delays.
Steve Hutkins, a New York University professor who maintains the Web site Save the Post Office (www.savethepostoffice.com), has been troubled by the increasing number of buildings the USPS has been trying to sell since the agency tried to close his rural outpost in New York’s Hudson Valley. The effort was defeated.
“These are historic landmarks that are very important to the community as a public space,” he said. “They were paid for by taxpayers.”
In some instances, historic elements of a building are protected in a sale. In 2012, Joel Silver, who produced “The Matrix” and “Die Hard,” bought a post office in Venice, Calif., and converted it into his offices. Included in the sale was a deal that Silver, or any future owner, must preserve the New Deal-era murals in the lobby and allow the public access to the artwork.
The Bronx General Post Office building, which houses murals by American artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, won landmark status in 1976. After plans to sell the building were announced last year, community members and local politicians rallied to have the murals awarded the same protection. Now, any potential buyer would have to agree to maintain both the art and the building’s edifice.
The Postal Service has said it has yet to identify a relocation site, which it likely would have to lease. And there won’t be one, Chirichello said, until a sale is underway.
Last year, Donald Trump entered a 60-year least with the federal government for the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington and announced he would be transforming it into a luxury hotel. The agreement preserves the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. No other post offices are listed for sale in the District, Maryland or Virginia at www.uspspropertiesforsale.
Hiatt is a freelance writer.
The previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Donald Trump had bought the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C. Last year, Donald Trump entered a 60-year lease with the federal government for the building. The story also updates by noting the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.