BERKELEY -- There have been rallies, packed hearings, Congressional support, singalongs on the post office steps and City Council resolutions all strongly opposed to the sale of the city's historic downtown post office. Yet these actions have not dissuaded the United States Postal Service from its decision to sell the 99-year-old building with its Depression-era artwork.
So post office activists are looking for new strategies, possibly turning to the courts.
"We want these post office buildings to stay within the public domain," said Jacquelyn McCormick, a former mayoral candidate, who is organizing the National Post Office Collaborate. NPOC, in the process of attaining a nonprofit status, aims to build a unified national response to the threatened sale of some 40 historic post offices nationwide. NPOC is working with Harold Hughes, retired USPS general counsel, now an attorney with Utah-based Ford & Huff, to look at legal strategies.
The postal service announced its decision to sell the Berkeley post office on April 22. Appeals can be filed until May 7, after which the postal service can summarily reject the appeals and allow the marketing of the building by USPS-designated Realtor CB Richard Ellis -- headed by Richard Blum, University of California trustee and husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco -- to market the building.
"The fact that the post office gave 15 days appeal on a matter that seems to be significant to the public kind of suggests how much thought they're going to give to considering the appeal," Hughes said.
Hughes authored an appeal to the USPS decision to sell the Bronx Post Office and is working on appealing the Berkeley decision.
He declined to talk about the particulars of a possible lawsuit, but discussed some overarching issues.
Hughes pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act, which says federal agencies must consider environmental impacts of major federal actions. Hughes said USPS avoids considering the cumulative impacts of numerous post office closings.
NEPA says "you can't chop it up into little pieces so that you avoid considering the overall effect and just say, 'This little piece doesn't really do anything. And that little piece doesn't do anything,' when you're relocating and selling,'" Hughes said.
Hughes criticized the postal service's hearing and appeals process, characterizing them as "pro forma." In his letter appealing the Bronx Post Office sale, he quoted postal regulations that state when a decision affects "the equality of the human environment," USPS must "encourage and facilitate public involvement" in the decisions.
He further discussed the question of public access to public art. USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz has said that, although USPS will maintain ownership of the art, the eventual owner of the Berkeley Post Office will regulate public access to it.
Hughes said, however, the National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to the art.
"Obviously the art was paid for by the public and for public consumption," Hughes said. "When this artwork was created, back in the Depression era, it was created for the public to enjoy. To simply say, 'Well, we continue to have it, but it's up to the new owner whether anyone would get to see it,' really sort of destroys the point of public art."
While exploring legal strategies, post office activists plan to continue to try and build momentum against the sale with a rally on the post office steps at 3:30 p.m. May 7.