BERKELEY -- Social media was buzzing last week with questions and conjectures on whether the Mayor Tom Bates' allegiance to saving the downtown Berkeley Post Office was waning, after the mayor's April 8 address to the Downtown Berkeley Association.
The City Council has been united -- unusual for the oft-divided lawmakers -- taking unanimous votes and issuing impassioned public statements, vowing to keep the city's historic post office in public hands. Facebook contributors asked if the mayor's speech indicated a fissure in the solid support to save the post office.
The source of online chatter was traced back to Councilman Jesse Arreguin, who had dashed off an email to Save the Berkeley Post Office activists after the mayor's "State of Downtown Berkeley" address.
According to the email, which Arreguin provided to this newspaper, the mayor told the downtown business crowd: " ... the [post office] sale presents an exciting opportunity to redevelop the building....It is a great location for a hotel or an office building. It's a prime location in the downtown and is an opportunity for redevelopment."
Citing what they claimed was further proof that the mayor had abandoned the push to save the post office, activists reposted a photo from Bates' Facebook page that showed the mayor addressing the DBA with a slide of the post office behind him; the slide included the CBRE logo prominent on the left lower side.
CBRE is the giant real estate firm charged with selling historic U.S. Postal Service buildings, including Berkeley's.
In a phone interview, Bates, didn't deny speaking favorably of opportunities to develop the post office site, but underscored that his priority is keeping the building in public hands.
"I want to see (the post office) in public ownership and am just pointing out the realities," he said.
"I've been fighting every step of the way to keep the building in public ownership in any way we can."
Bates said he was told there are at least seven bids on the property.
He declined to name his sources but said one was a bidder.
The mayor said his first choice is for USPS to retain ownership, using the front space with historical significance, and leasing out the newer rear of the building.
"The post office is saying they want a buyer, but I'm saying, 'no, no -- you keep it. You own it, you keep it and then lease the back,'" Bates said.
A second option is creating a condominium.
"They maintain the front part as a post office, under Postal Service ownership and sell the back part to somebody else to utilize for the purposes that the city would allow them to do," Bates said.
A third option, which Bates said was least preferable, would be the sale of the building, with the Postal Service leasing back service space in its front.
Asked what should be developed at the rear of the post office, Bates said the historic significance of the 1914 section of the building would limit development.
"When I talked to people who were involved with the landmarks component, they said they couldn't imagine anything higher than what's next door -- which would be the Library Gardens (apartment building) -- which is about 60 feet," he said, adding, however, that he is not advocating a building that tall.
"That's the limiting factor," he said.
"That's all that I said" at the meeting.
Given limitations Bates said, a number of things could be developed, such as "a conference area, it could be a hotel, it could be condos, it could be apartments, it could be senior housing, it could be low-income housing.
"There are all kinds of opportunities."
Reiterating his preference for the post office site to "remain in public ownership," Bates argued that the reality is, "If we lose on that we ought to look at backup positions."