BERKELEY -- Lawyers took center stage at the Tuesday City Council discussion of the fight by the city and residents to save the historic downtown post office, which the Postal Service has formally put up for sale.
At issue was the United States Postal Service assessment that as long as the building is protected by certain covenants -- including protection of the mural in the lobby and restrictions on altering the building's historic features -- that no adverse effects would result from the sale.
Because the 1914 second renaissance revival-style post office is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the USPS is required under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess whether a sale would cause negative consequences.
Land-use attorney Antonio Rossman -- who has been working with the city attorney and the National Trust for Historic Preservation on legal issues around the building's preservation -- challenged the USPS conclusions, arguing in a letter to the State Historic Preservation Office, that the Postal Service should undertake a more rigorous environmental review via an environmental impact statement.
"The EIS will enable a public process that identifies alternatives to sale, including sale with specific conditions to respect and continue the property's public and postal use," the letter states.
The City Council voted unanimously to send the letter to the Historic Preservation Office on behalf of the city. Rossman said he would prepare a second letter after the Postal Service formally tours the building with some members of the City Council and staff in early November.
The Rossman letter criticized the Postal Service assessment of a sale's consequences, saying the agency considered only effects on immediately adjacent historic buildings and contending that it would have ramifications for the entire downtown historic district that includes Berkeley High buildings, Old City Hall, the Veterans Building and more.
The letter also argued that any sale should require -- not simply suggest -- the lease-back of space that the Postal Service would use to service the public.
Rossman told the council that he's trying to avoid litigation. "But I'll assure you," he said. "If we have to (file litigation) we are prepared to do that."
Rossman wasn't the only lawyer to speak. Attorney Clark Morrison, representing USPS, said the post office was seeking ideas from the council for the building's reuse. Referring to the formal USPS notification that the post office is for sale, Morrison said, "One of the reasons to go to market was to see what ideas (for reuse) float up from the marketplace."
Morrison further criticized Planning Commission efforts to create new zoning that would require historic downtown properties to engage uniquely in public-serving functions, saying that was "about what shouldn't happen there."
Mayor Tom Bates told Morrison that the city was "very, very frustrated" about not getting straight answers to questions on the building's seismic safety and asbestos status. Morrison first responded that the buyer would have a "due diligence period" to get those answers, but when pressed, said he'd refer the question to USPS.
Public speakers included Jacquelyn McCormick, executive director of the National Post Office Collaborate, which is considering filing its own lawsuit.
"The greatest adverse effect of the sale of any of these historic post offices is the assimilation of public assets into private corporatization for personal gain and monetary gain," McCormick said.