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Historic preservation agency seeks halt in post office sales

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has issued a report to Congress that criticizes the U.S. Postal Service's disposal of historic properties and calls for suspension of all sales until a host of recommendations are implemented.

The report by the independent federal agency was issued Thursday. It came a little more than a month after the council heard testimony in the Bay Area from Berkeley’s mayor, state and local preservationists and activists who contend the postal service has fast-tracked sales without taking local concerns or its legal obligations to preserve national historic treasures into account.

Communities around the country have balked over the last few years as the postal service has increasingly placed historic post offices filled with New Deal-era artwork on the market.

But in Berkeley, the push to sell its 1914 Second Renaissance Revival-style main post office prompted the fiercest reaction yet, including a month-long encampment on the steps and creation of a nationwide organization that is battling sales coast to coast.

City leaders have teamed with residents to fight the move, promising litigation in the event of a sale and moving to impose a zoning overlay that would probably muddy any prospect of one.

In his March testimony to the advisory council, Mayor Tom Bates said Berkeley has responded “in its best traditions of civic and citizen resistance to the unwise exercise of authority.”

Others who expressed concerns in their testimony included the Los Angeles field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the State Historic Preservation Officer and an architectural historian working with the Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force.

The National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their actions on historic properties and to consult with interested parties such as state preservation officers and city officials to resolve any negative effects.

In every instance where the postal service has followed the act, the report notes, it has concluded that the sales would have “no adverse effect.” Even though the council has repeatedly sided with local preservationists who have challenged those findings, the report added, the postal service has disregarded the concerns.

The council's report concludes that the postal service has not been complying with the act. Although the report states that case law makes it clear that the postal service is legally obligated to comply, it recommends that Congress explicitly clarify that point.

It also called for greater transparency and involvement of local officials and preservationists before decisions on relocation and sale are a done deal.

The report also focused on “preservation covenants” that the USPS has issued when the historic properties – among them the Venice Post Office -- have been sold.

The covenants call for protection of historic assets and, where relevant, public access to historic artworks. They have formed the basis for the universal determinations by the postal service that sales would have no “adverse effect” on historic properties.

But holders are generally nonprofit preservation organizations, and since the covenants do not provide any means to help pay for their administration or enforcement they are effectively meaningless, the report notes.

It recommended that the postal service work with the advisory council and other preservation groups to develop a “model covenant” that would most likely pass that financial obligation on to buyers.

The USPS has conducted the sales and leases through an exclusive contract with real estate giant CBRE Group Inc. that has come under fire by the USPS Office of Inspector General.

The inspector general is expected to soon issue a full report on the postal service sales.

Meanwhile Thursday, U.S. Rep Jose Serrano (D-New York), who requested both the advisory council report and inspector general probe, echoed the call for a time-out on sales.

“I urge them to comply with the recommendations, “ he said, “but in the meantime, I plan to introduce legislation that will ensure that no further historic postal facilities are sold until we can be sure the USPS has indeed implemented the recommendations of this report, and is following the law.”

In a statement, the USPS said it has “a long history of working with the [advisory council] and the recommendations detailed in their report will be evaluated.”

The postal service “highly values its historic assets and adheres to all federal laws, rules and regulations pertaining to selling historic properties,” the statement added. “Any property under consideration to be sold is evaluated for historical purposes.

Of 9,000 properties owned by USPS, 1,900 are listed or could be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the statement said, so in that context, “sales of historic postal properties have been very modest: 7 in 2012 and 6 in 2013.” 

With revenue declining, it noted: “Reducing the number of properties the Postal Service owns contributes to the bottom line — in terms of saving money maintaining the property and in increasing revenue when the property is sold.”

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lee.romney@latimes.com

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