La Jolla preservationist testifies at hearing on post office sales

Task force effort seen as model in push to save icons

By Pat Sherman

Architectural historian Diane Kane, a member of the Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force, was invited to testify on the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) sale of historic post office buildings, March 11 in Oakland, Calif.

A group of La Jollans formed the task force in January 2012 in response to the USPS’s announcement that it plans to sell La Jolla’s 1935 post office and relocate its services.

The task force, under the auspices of the La Jolla Historical Society, has thus far succeeded in its effort to prevent the USPS from selling the post office at 1140 Wall St. (or even placing it on the market).

The March 11 hearing, organized by the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), was a response to language inserted into January’s omnibus spending bill that blocks sales of historic post offices until a federal probe is complete. As part of that inquiry, Congress has requested that the ACHP file a report on the disposal of historic post offices (a concurrent, similar report is being conducted by the USPS’s independent Office of Inspector General).

The ACHP has until April 17 to report back to Congress, largely based on testimony it received from Kane and others at the Oakland hearing.

Kane said the hearing was specifically organized to assess USPS’s handling of the Section 106 Review process, part of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to evaluate the impact of all federally funded or permitted projects on historic properties. Since the sale of La Jolla’s post office was announced, La Jolla’s task force has been successful in obtaining federal, state and local historic designations for the Wall Street post office.

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Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force member Diane Kane.

Kane said the concerns of those invited (largely community stakeholders from California, where the most historic post office sales have occurred) included keeping post offices’ publicly owned art and architecture in the public realm (La Jolla’s post office includes a mural painted in 1939 by one of San Diego’s most accomplished, early 20th century artists, Belle Baranceanu).

“There was a lot of energy in the room and a lot of commonalities among the stories,” Kane said of the three- hour meeting. “The ACHP was both trouble-shooting and looking for answers. ... They asked us several times, ‘What advice do we give to Congress? We need to tell Congress something.’ ... They got an earful.”

In addition to her prepared testimony, which took the USPS to task for “poor communication, an opaque administrative structure and tight public response deadlines,” Kane spoke of the task force’s “painful” Section 106 consultation with the USPS.

After fighting the USPS’s initial assertion that its quasi-governmental status made it exempt from the Section 106 process (and other federal regulations), said Kane, the task force received a “consultant-prepared historical evaluation” and protective covenant language for the Wall Street post office that was so vague the task force feared none of the property’s historic aspects would be preserved should the building be sold.

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