Post office preservationists continue to gain support

By Pat Sherman

The Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force gained another victory last week when, at the urging of District 1 San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, the City Council unanimously voted to sup- port legislation that would give an interested non-profit community group first dibs on purchasing the historic Wall Street post office.

Authored by Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-53), the Community Post Office Relocation Act (H.R. 6238) would give La Jolla and other communities across the country threatened with the closure of their historic or beloved post offices a 30- day advance notice that the United States Postal Service (USPS) intends to sell their post office. The group could then make a bid to purchase the building before it goes on the general market.

The task force also is pursuing a provision that would allow the ympathetic new owner to lease back a portion of the building to USPS, so that postal services can remain on Wall Street. USPS would not incur costs associated with a relocation, creating a “win-win” scenario for the postal service and community.

Congresswoman Davis, Lightner and members of the task force met outside the Wall Street post office Oct. 24 to announce the City Council’s support and discuss the task force’s efforts to date. La Jollans were informed in January that USPS intended to sell the 77-year-old Wall Street building and relocate services to a smaller site, potentially within the Village.

Addressing media in front of the post office, Congresswoman Davis said the community’s “hard work to preserve this iconic building has not gone unnoticed in Washington.”

Davis said she felt compelled to help after hearing about the community’s concerted effort to save its post office, and the lack of a response from USPS.

The congresswoman said she did some investigating and found out there was “no official procedure” for a community to purchase its post office.

Through its efforts during the past 10 months, the task force has achieved a string of victories, including Congresswoman Davis’s legislation, which has bipartisan support from Congressmen Bob Filner (D-51) and Brian Bilbray (R-50).

Based largely on the La Jolla task force’s efforts, the Wall Street post office — and other threatened historic post offices like it across the nation — were added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Though the task force has successfully bought itself time and prevented the post office from being sold, to date it has received few answers from USPS about the quasi- governmental agency’s plans or intentions.

“E-mail isn’t killing the post office, politics is — and politics can save it,” said task force chair Leslie Davis (no relation to the congresswoman), during last week’s event.

Asked this month whether USPS still intends to sell the Wall Street property and relocate its services — or whether it has even identified a suitable new site for the services — USPS’s West Coast regional property manager, Diana Alvarado, provided the task force with no new information, Leslie Davis said.

Earlier this year the task force submitted a nomination packet to USPS Federal Preservation Officer Dallan Wordekemper, requesting the Wall Street post office be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation was earlier endorsed by the California State Office of Historic Preservation.

As the owner of the building, USPS has the final say as to whether the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places will consider the post office for inclusion. Leslie Davis said Wordekemper agreed that the post office “seems to be historic,” though he doesn’t believe it needs to be included on the national register.

“We disagree, because that would give it some additional protection,” Leslie Davis said. “The task force wrote back (in July) and said, ‘Within your Section 106 process you actually need to tell us why you think it is historic, and also why you believe it doesn’t need to be designated’.”

Wordekemper has not since replied to the task force’s queries.

Moving forward, the task force is banking on Congresswoman Davis’s bill to solidify its effort to have a nonprofit such as the La Jolla Historical Society purchase the building. The bill is currently before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-49).

Last year, Issa crafted his own legislation, the Postal Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 2309), which focuses on cost-cutting measures aimed at making USPS solvent, including a reduction in delivery by one day and the formation of a committee to focus on post office closures and the reduction of administrative overhead.

In August, the task force organized a letter- writing campaign, which resulted in more than 200 letters being sent to Issa in support of Congresswoman Davis’s legislation. Issa responded with a form letter, stating that it is already legal for a nonprofit community group to purchase its post office.

The task force is uncertain whether Issa and his committee members favor key elements of Davis’s legislation, such as the provision giving communities a 30-day advance opportunity to purchase their post office before it is offered to the general public.

Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, characterized Davis’s and Issa’s legislation as two “fairly divergent bills.”

Though Davis’s bill has not been scheduled for review, Ahmad said, “Chairman Issa is supportive of the group’s efforts to purchase the historic La Jolla post office, via a negotiated sale.”

Ahmad said the committee is still considering whether the 30-day lead time for community groups would have “any unintended consequences,” and is considering “technical issues related to disposal of federal property, ensuring that the language does not force the Postal Service to dispose of property ... to an entity that could not actually take hold of the property.”

In the event that USPS does sell the building to a community group, the task force hopes to ensure that its historic facade and WPA-era, interior mural are preserved through an easement that restricts the new owner from altering these historic elements.

However, as San Diego-based Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) has learned through experience, it takes money to hire an attorney to enforce the easement, which can run $15,000-$20,000 per year, Leslie Davis said. Both the City of San Diego and SOHO have said they do not have resources to enforce the easement.

Should the building be sold to a developer or party other than a sympathetic community group, the task force hopes to obtain an endowment from USPS to maintain the easement. Task force members are currently drafting language related to the easement and endowment, which will be sent to USPS attorneys in the near future.