May 21, 2013
Greeley Square is a small triangular park in New York City, bounded by West 32nd and West 33rd Streets, and Broadway and Sixth Avenue. It’s a charming spot in a bustling area, with tables and chairs, a food kiosk, and a surprising number of trees for a small square on Broadway.
I’ve walked by Greeley Square hundreds of times, a couple of days a week in fact, and I never knew it by its right name. I thought it was just part of Herald Square, which is officially the triangle just to the north. Together they form a classic Broadway bow-tie square, similar to Times Square at 42nd Street.
Since 1949, there's been a post office about a block away from Greeley Square, just off Broadway on 31st Street. It’s called Greeley Square Station.
Yesterday the Postal Service relocated the Greeley Square Station about five blocks away, to the Grand Madison Building at 225 Fifth Avenue. (The entrance to the new post office is at 4 East 27th Street.)
The new facility is smaller and may end up a little congested, but at least it’s newly renovated, and it's in a beautiful historic building. It's not far from the old location, and 27th Street at Fifth Avenue is a nice area, near Madison Square, the Flatiron Building and the chic NoMad Hotel. There probably won’t be a lot of squawking about the new location.
The problem is not so much with the move per se as with how the Postal Service seems to have gone about it.
The new post office is about six blocks from Greeley Square, so continuing to call it Greeley Square Station may seem a little strange, but there’s a reason the Postal Service retained the name. If it had chosen to close the post office completely, even if it were opening another one nearby, the Postal Service would have been required to go through a lengthy discontinuance process. Moving retail services from one location to another, however, is a simpler matter, and the regulations are much less stringent than for a closure.
But there are still regulations that govern such relocations. The Postal Service is required to follow the code of federal regulations on relocating a post office (CFR 241.4). It's supposed to inform elected officials of its plans, and to either attend a regular meeting of those officials or hold a separate public meeting about the relocation. There’s also a period during which customers can submit written comments, and once a final decision is made, there's an opportunity to appeal. The public is supposed to be involved with the decision, not told about it a few days before the move takes place.
The Greeley Square relocation has been in the works for a long time. The Postal Service says the move was necessary because a new lease could not be renegotiated with the landlord. That lease expired in September 2012, but it must have been clear months before then that the Postal Service wasn't going to renew. The bidding notice for the renovation work at the new location is dated June 2012, and the work probably began in August.
It's not clear at this point what steps the Postal Service took to share its plans on relocating the Greeley Square Station. The first that union officials heard about it was this week, after a sign was posted on the door of the post office. Maybe others knew about it before then, but the earliest news item we can find is dated May 15, just a few days before the move took place.
A similar relocation is also occurring up in Washington Heights, where the Washington Bridge Station is closing and being moved a block or two away. Last month that relocation caught union and elected officials off guard. At least in that case, however, it was widely known in the community back in 2009 that there was an issue with the lease, and at some point the Postal Service sent a representative to a city council meeting to discuss the proposed relocation. (More on that relocation here.)
There are a number of other relocations going on in New York City right now, including the Bronx GPO, Peter Stuyvesant, Old Chelsea, and Tito Puente, and upset customers have expressed their concerns and anger at several recent meetings with postal officials.
Relocations like these are a matter of contention all across the country, from Berkeley to the Bronx. The Postal Service is in the process of closing dozens of historic post offices, selling the buildings, and moving retail services to smaller spaces. Despite the significant impacts of these changes on the community, the Postal Service says it’s just “relocating” the post office.
Moving the Greeley Square Station is not anywhere as serious as closing and selling a historic post office, but the Postal Service must still follow federal regulations, and it's not supposed to make such decisions unilaterally, without consulting customers and elected officials. If it turns out that the Postal Service neglected to share its plans about Greeley Square, someone may have some explaining to do.
Berkeley sings to save its historic post office. For more information, go to the You-tube page description.
May 9, 2013
The Postal Service is putting another historic post office up for sale, and as usual it's showing little interest in hearing from the public or following the law.
Selling off historic post offices isn't easy. Not only does the Postal Service need to find a buyer willing to take on the encumbrances associated with a historic building; there are also numerous legal regulations about the procedures that must be followed.
One of the main purposes of these regulations is to ensure that the public has sufficient opportunity to express its concerns and to explore alternatives with postal officials.
Time and again, however, the Postal Service has shown that it doesn't really give a hoot what people have to say. And while it may make a nod toward following the letter of the law, it doesn’t much care about the spirit.
Last June the Postal Service informed postal workers and elected officials in Reading, Massachusetts, that it was considering selling the city's historic post office. According to a brief news item about the announcement, Michael Foley, USPS project coordinator from the Greater Boston district, said that the plan hinged on finding a buyer for the property.
Foley said it would take several months, possibly even a couple of years, before the plan came to fruition. “If we do go forward, it’s not a quick process,” Foley said. “The time is dictated by the potential buyer.”
Mr. Foley’s remarks were probably intended to reassure the people in Reading that nothing was going to happen fast. There would be plenty of time to talk about it.
Last month, the Postal Service began the official process for closing the post office, relocating retail services, and selling the building. Things are happening a lot of faster than the people in Reading may realize.
May 5, 2013
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Main Post Office on Brookside Avenue in Redlands, California. It's a downtown landmark, it's on the National Register of Historic Places, and it even has its own postal museum. Now the Postal Service is closing down the Redlands Main Post Office and selling the building.
Plans for the sale were first made public in early March 2012. A brief USPS press release stated that the Brookside office had been identified as "a valuable asset whose potential sale would generate much needed capital for the Postal Service." The release goes on to say simply, "The Redlands Main Post Office will be consolidated with the Redlands-Lugonia Station."
The process has been moving forward since then, but largely out of public view. Then in March of this year, post office box holders found a notice in their boxes telling them that the office would be closing in the near future and services transferred to the Lugonia office on New York Street.
The Postal Service has thus revealed, perhaps inadvertently, that the sale of the Redlands post office is not merely a plan under consideration. The decision has already been made.
Over the next few weeks,there will finally be a public meeting, and the Postal Service will make a show of listening to input from the public. It won't mean much.
As usual, the Postal Service has put the cart before the horse. It has made a decision about what it’s going to do, and then asked for public comment. That makes a sham of the whole process, but this is how the Postal Service interprets its mandate to act "like a business."
May 1, 2013
The Postal Service is continuing its push to dismantle the country's vast network of brick-and-mortar post offices. Post offices are being suspended over minor lease disputes, historic buildings are being sold to the highest bidder, and retail services are being moved to smaller, usually less convenient locations.
Post offices just don't seem very important to the leadership of the Postal Service. That's probably because big mailers don't use post offices, and they're the ones who send most of the mail. Over 80 percent of total mail volume is "wholesale" — it enters the system workshared, presorted and at discount rates.
The retail business done at post offices accounts for about 16 percent of total revenues — $10.6 billion out of $65 billion. That may seem like a significant contribution to the bottom line, but the leaders of the Postal Service would prefer that average customers did more of their postal business elsewhere — online and through other "alternate retail channels," like buying stamps at the supermarket.
The Postal Service as a real estate business
The fate of post offices buildings is the subject of this week's "Pushing the Envelope" blog on the website of the USPS Office of Inspector General. In a post entitled "Mail Business, Real Estate Business, or Both?" the OIG invites public comment on questions like, Should the Postal Service generate revenue by leasing space in its buildings to other businesses, or should it just sell the buildings and lease space for post offices? Should there be restrictions on which facilities it can sell or what types of operations it can lease to?
It's not the first time such questions have been raised. There's already a federal regulation (41 CFR 102-73.20) requiring government agencies to "extend priority consideration to available space in buildings under the custody and control" of the Postal Service.
Along similar lines, a 2012 GAO report recommended that the Postal Service do more to make its excess space available to other federal agencies. In its response to GAO, the Postal Service wrote, "In situations where USPS has identified underutilized space, we are actively and aggressively pursuing third party tenants where deemed appropriate by engaging CBRE, a National Real Estate Services Provider."
Despite the federal regulation, the GAO's recommendations, and the Postal Service's claim to be aggressively pursuing tenants, there's no indication that any effort whatsoever has been expended to lease out the extra space in the historic post office buildings now being sold. Coast to coast, from the Bronx and Chelsea in New York City to La Jolla, Berkeley, and Redlands in California, the Postal Service is simply selling off national treasures to the highest bidder.