The U.S. Postal Service is trying to sell many of its historical buildings to private developers as it looks for ways to cut losses that reached a record $15.9 billion in 2012.
The fire sale started gaining momentum two years ago after the Postal Service hired the commercial real estate firm CBRE to oversee the properties, many of them relics of the New Deal era. Of the 58 post offices currently listed, six are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The listing prices vary, from $8.3 million for the 16,930-square-foot Nat King Cole Post Office in Los Angeles to $55,000 for the modest, 1,262-square-foot post office in Petersburg, Va.
“Due to decreasing mail volumes, the Postal Service has an infrastructure that is too big, and we have spent the past two years consolidating mail processing facilities in an attempt to right-size the organization,” Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said.
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the post office as one of the United States’ 11 most “endangered historic places” after the USPS identified nearly 4,400 post offices it would study for potential closure.
Peter Malkin, whose holdings include the Empire State Building, bought the Greenwich, Conn., post office two years ago for about $15 million in an attempt to keep the building’s historic nature intact. A similar deal played out last summer when a group of developers in Reno, Nev., bought the city’s 78-year-old downtown post office for $1.2 million.
In other communities, such as Ukiah, Calif., the sales have resulted in bitter political battles in which developers have purchased the building only to leave residents guessing what will come next.
“Generally speaking, they get turned into retail complexes like the one in Reno,” said Steve Hutkins, a literature professor at New York University who runs the website Save the Post Office. He noted the post office in Venice, Calif., that is now set to become an office for Joel Silver, the Hollywood producer behind The Matrix and Lethal Weapon.
He said about 2,200 of the nation’s post offices were built during the Great Depression as a morale booster for a country that was losing confidence in its government.
“So to see them turned into a restaurant or a film studio or real estate office or law offices is just undoing all of that,” Hutkins said. “Frankly, I think the effort to privatize them is to remove all signs that the government can do great things.”
After they bought the city’s downtown post office last summer, the Reno developers announced they had plans to turn the three-story art deco building into a high-end retail center on the banks of the Truckee River.
Before work can start, Nevada’s State Historic Preservation Office will be required to approve any changes to the building, which includes about $5 million in repairs and asbestos removal.
“Once we get those approvals done, then we can start the process of improving the building,” said Bernie Carter, one of the developers. “Those redevelopment plans include a whole new roof on the building.”
Municipalities have purchased some post offices in an attempt to keep them open. In Boone, N.C., the town’s planning department will set up shop in the downtown post office after the town council agreed to buy the 73-year-old building for $1 million, said Bill Bailey, Boone’s planning director. In turn, the town leased a portion of the building back to the Postal Service to keep the post office running.
Of the 31,300 Postal Service branches across the nation, about 8,900 are owned by the government, and the rest are leased.
Although the Postal Service has identified thousands of locations for potential closure, there’s no telling how many will be sold. There are plans to sell the post office in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown, “one of the oldest post offices in the country,” said Nancy Pope, a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington.
Pope said the local post office for decades was the only interaction many Americans had with the federal government. “As a society we don’t want to let it go,” Pope said.
Brian Duggan reports for USA Today.