Task force buys more time in effort to delay La Jolla post office sale
By Pat ShermanThe Save Our La Jolla Post Office Task Force received good news last week from a federal agency that says selling La Jolla’s Wall Street post office would have a negative impact on the 1935 structure and beloved community landmark.
The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) determined that the United States Postal Service’s federal preservation officer ruled incorrectly when he said in October that selling the post office would have “no adverse effect” on the structure.
It has been nearly a year since the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced its plan to sell La Jolla’s post office at 1140 Wall Street and relocate services to a smaller building elsewhere in or near the Village.
The post office task force, comprised of attorneys, land use experts, historic preservationists and other community members, was formed shortly after the announcement to devise a plan to keep postal services on Wall Street — including having a nonprofit organization, such as the La Jolla Historical Society, purchase the building and lease a portion of it back to USPS.
USPS has determined that the Wall Street building is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places for its WPA-era architecture and 1935 mural by artist Belle Baranceanu.
The sale has been delayed about six months by the Section 106 process, which requires federal agencies, such as the USPS, to study the impact of a sale or alteration to buildings either listed on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register.
In a letter opining that selling the post office would have no adverse effect on the building, Federal Preservation Officer Dallan Wordekemper wrote that a “preservation covenant” with the new owner would require that the new owner restore, maintain and preserve the property and mural in accordance with Secretary of the Interior standards, and that no construction, alteration or rehabilitation be permitted that would affect its historic features without prior approval of the California Historic Preservation Office.
However, on Nov. 20 ACHP Director Reid Nelson sent a letter to Wordekemper stating his opinion that the covenant as worded is “insufficient to justify the finding of no adverse effect” and “does not include provisions that ensure the long-term preservation of the property’s historic significance as required (by ACHP regulations.)”
If the USPS maintains its finding of no adverse effect, it must summarize in writing its reason for the decision and the evidence that it considered the ACHP’s opinion, Nelson wrote.
Post office task force chair Leslie Davis said the ACHP’s determination will prolong the Section 106 process, further delaying a sale while the task force works on its strategy to keep postal services in place.
“Section 106 is what is keeping us from having that post office sold — and it continues to keep us from that,” Davis said.
In addition, in order for the USPS to sell the post office, an agency must first accept responsibility for maintaining the preservation cove- nants and assuring that the building’s historic facets are maintained — which can be an expensive and time-consuming process.
Davis noted that five days after the City of Los Angeles accepted responsibility for overseeing the covenants on Venice Beach’s historic post office, the building sold (to film producer Joel Silver).
Thus far, neither the City of San Diego, nor a state or local preserva- tion agency has stepped up to accept financial responsibility for maintaining the covenants on the Wall Street building.
“Happily, no one is accepting that,” Davis said, noting that both the task force and ACHP have requested additional language be added to the covenants.
Postal reform on hiatusA postal reform bill introduced this year by Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-53rd), which would give communities like La Jolla the first option to purchase their historically significant post offices, will not likely be considered before year’s end — though it could fare better next year.
Leslie Davis and other task force members met recently with representatives from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees USPS and is chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-49th).
Though Issa has authored his own postal reform bill — viewed by many as a Draconian cost-slash- ing measure that would seem at odds with the task force’s preservation efforts — Issa makes the final determination as to whether Susan Davis’s bill is heard in committee and ultimately advances.
Though Issa’s committee had previously offered the task force only tepid acknowledgement of Susan Davis’s legislation, Leslie Davis said the task force’s meeting with oversight committee reps last week offered some hope.
“We’ve put faces to voices, which I think is good for us, because now we can open up the conversation,” she said. “They did say that La Jolla seemed to have the most organized and relevant effort to save their post office.”
The representatives left the task force with some things to consider regarding the legislation, Leslie Davis said, adding that the congresswoman’s staff and task force members are revising the legislation to make it more palatable to Issa and his committee members in the coming year.
Leslie Davis also said Issa’s committee reps acknowledged that 80 percent of the cash-strapped USPS’s budget is comprised of labor costs. “That’s another reason not to focus on real estate holdings, because it’s a drop in the bucket,” Davis said.
Still, the committee reps maintained USPS’s commitment to selling off its real estate — particularly in California where property values are high — as it is an “easier divestiture,” Davis said.
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