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.

“They did this boilerplate report and said we’re going to just stipulate that the building is historic because we want to sell it really fast, and we have to do something to protect its historic nature,” Kane said, noting that the USPS initially planned to designate the new owner as the enforcer of the covenant, which preservationists view as a fox guarding the hen house scenario.

“The initial package we got was just complete gobbledygook,” said Kane, who has compiled similar reports for Caltrans. “Federal regulations (require that) you have to have a qualified person do this report, and whoever did it was clearly not qualified.”

Kane said the report contained no explanation as to why the USPS now considered La Jolla’s post office historic, or which National Register criteria it met.

According to the California State Office of Historic Preservation (also represented at the hearing), the USPS approached the agency to sign off on some seven already completed post office sales using this boilerplate protective covenant.

La Jolla’s task force eventually provided its own covenant language and evaluation qualifying La Jolla’s post office for a national historic designation under National Register Criterion A (for its association with La Jolla’s community planning and development) and Criterion C (for its WPA-era Spanish Eclectic architecture and its WPA-era lobby mural).

The property was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places, though to date, Kane said, the task force is uncertain how the building is actually listed, and objects to the omission of its community history as significant. For the building to be sold, Kane said, the USPS must still locate a third party to enforce its protective covenant — something the City of San Diego, La Jolla Historical Society and San Diego-based Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) have all said they have no money for.

The task force has recommended the USPS place money in an escrow account for “periodic monitoring” and “some cushion in case you have to go to court to enforce the provisions of the covenant” with its new owner.

“The USPS has just flatly refused to entertain any compensation,” Kane said.

No alternative in sight

Despite several “scouting” visits to La Jolla, the USPS says it has been unable to locate a suitable site in which to relocate Wall Street’s postal services.

Kane said the task force maintains the most desirable alternative would be for a community organization to purchase the building at fair market value and lease the required space back to the USPS to keep postal operations in place (an option USPS representatives have told the Light is unfeasible, due to the building’s awkward configuration).

During the hearing, Kane said attendees praised the La Jolla task force as a model in the fight to preserve historic post offices.

“That’s how we’ve been able to stay open for two years,” she said. “I took them apart piece by piece and forced them to go back through the process. Essentially, the USPS learned how to do Section 106 on our post office. ... They botched it so badly that we’ve tied them up in knots for two years.”

   
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