In bad faith: How the Postal Service is selling the Redlands post office

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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." 

 

They come here every day

The Brookside post office was designed by architect G. Stanley Wilson, and the nomination form for the Register states that the post office is “locally significant as a rare extant example of a locally prominent architect's work, as well as acting as a major urban design element in Redlands.”

The Redlands Historical Museum Association has had its eyes on the building for several years, and when the Postal Service announced plans to sell the building, the Museum Association immediately expressed interest in buying it.  The City Council was on board from the get-go.  Several private parties, however, were also interested in using the building for commercial purposes.

One resident of Redlands had another idea — keeping the post office as a post office.  After hearing of the planned sale, Karlie Miller set up a table outside the post office and soon gathered over three thousand signatures on a petition to save the post office.

“The people needed a voice,” Miller said, standing at her table.  “The handicapped, the elderly, the homeless people – they come here every day,” Miller said. “I’ve never been here enough to see it until now.”

Miller also wrote a detailed editorial for the Redlands Daily Facts, in which she noted that the Lugonia Station on New York Street is not in an area of town accessible to all of Redlands' citizens.  It’s about a mile from downtown, and it's almost impossible to get there on foot because there are no sidewalks on the main boulevard leading to New York Street.  It’s located on a cul-de-sac, so it’s not easy driving there either.  Miller almost had an accident just visiting the facility to check it out.

The Lugonia Station was not intended to be the city's main post office.  Its primary functions are mail processing and housing letter carriers and their trucks.  There's also a very small retail area, which would become the city's only post office.

Over the past year, Miller has been keeping an eye on things, but there wasn't much to see.  Behind the scenes, however, the Postal Service has been making preparations to sell the building.  At this point, most people in Redlands probably feel that the sale is a done deal.  They just have to look at the unwatered and dying grass in front of the post office, the untrimmed hedges, and the unswept grounds to see that the Postal Service has already moved on.  Despite all the indications that the post office will eventually be sold, Miller remains hopeful, and she has been encouraging people to believe they may still be able to save the post office.

 

How to sell a historic post office

In order to sell a historic post office like the Redlands main post office, the Postal Service must go through two processes, one for selling a historic building and one for closing a post office.

The sale of historic properties is governed by Section 106 requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  Federal agencies are required to consider the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and they must give the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and the general public a reasonable opportunity to comment.  The procedures are spelled out in 36 CFR Part 800, the Code of Federal Regulations on the Protection of Historic Properties.

The closing of a post office is also governed by law and federal regulations.  There are basically two ways to close a post office permanently.  One is by going through a formal discontinuance, a lengthy and involved process that requires the Postal Service to follow many rules, all spelled out in 39 CFR 241.3 and the Postal Service’s Discontinuance Guide.

The alternative to a discontinuance is to close the post office but then reopen retail services in another building.  That’s called a “relocation,” and the regulations are much more relaxed, presumably because Congress believes relocations usually don’t have as big an impact on a community as closing the post office completely.  The relocation process is described in 39 CFR 241.4.

It's important how the two processes — one for the closing (relocation or discontinuance) and another for the sale — are conducted, and the timing has become a matter of controversy.  In almost every recent case where a historic post office is being sold, the Postal Service has chosen to relocate retail services elsewhere, and it has done the relocation procedure first, then initiated the Section 106 process after a relocation decision has been made final.

The National Trust and others, however, have argued that Section 106 requirements should go into effect as soon as the Postal Service begins making plans for the relocation.  Otherwise, community input comes after the fact and becomes essentially irrelevant. As 36 CFR Part 800 says, “The agency official shall ensure that the Section 106 process is initiated early in the undertaking's planning, so that a broad range of alternatives may be considered during the planning process for the undertaking.” 

That controversy may one day end up in court.  In the case of Redlands, however, events have taken a different turn.

 

Discontinuing Redlands

While there's still a possibility that the Postal Service will relocate retail services from the Brookside post office to another new location downtown, all indications are that it intends to discontinue the office completely and consolidate with Lugonia Station.  And instead of doing a Section 106 process after it's made a decision to close the post office, the Postal Service has started with the Section 106 procedures. 

That the Postal Service is talking about a “discontinuance” rather than a “relocation” was made clear in last week’s news article.  Customers have been directed to send their comments to the District Discontinuance Coordinator, and, according to Eva Jackson, a USPS spokeswoman, “Once [the comments are] back east, the decision on whether they will discontinue the Brookside Avenue location will be decided.”  That the intent is to discontinue the post office was also confirmed by postal officials this past week in a conversation with Karlie Miller.

A discontinuance study is a serious matter, and the description of the procedures in the Discontinuance Guide fill 60 pages.  The process is supposed to begin with a feasibility study, followed by a proposal to close the post office.  Then there’s a meeting and comment period, and only after all the material is gathered and reviewed does the Postal Service come to a final decision.  Once a final determination is posted, the community may also appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission.  (Decisions on relocations may be appealed as well, but the PRC routinely dismisses them as out of its jurisdiction).

The regulations also have clearly specified criteria for determining when it’s appropriate to initiate a discontinuance study.  The Postal Service says it wants to sell the Brookside building because it is an asset and the sale will generate revenue.  That may be true, but that’s not on the official list of criteria for initiating a discontinuance study, and it may not fly as an adequate justification.  It will certainly be one of the first times such a reason has been used to discontinue a post office.

If the Postal Service does proceed with a discontinuance study on the Brookside post office, it will be a unique event for another reason.  The Postal Service hasn’t closed a post office through a discontinuance process for nearly a year and a half, not since December 2011, when it put a six-month moratorium on closures.  After the moratorium ended, the Postal Service decided not to close post offices and to reduce their hours instead.  While some post offices have been suspended for emergencies like a lack of personnel or a lease dispute, we don’t know of any post office that has closed by discontinuance over the past eighteen months.

 

Public involvement is key

As noted above, when the Postal Service has chosen to do a relocation and sale, it has segmented the process into two stages — first a relocation decision, then the Section 106 procedures on the sale.  In the case of Redlands, the Postal Service started the Section 106 process before initiating the discontinuance process.  That’s problematic, too.  It means that the Postal Service is getting all of its ducks in order for the sale, then doing a discontinuance study. 

Obviously, that would seem to predetermine the outcome of the discontinuance study, so any public input into the process will be irrelevant.  There’s plenty of evidence already that the Postal Service has made a final decision and will just be going through the motions.

In August 2012, for example, the Postal Service told the news media that it was already working through a due diligence period as required NHPA. It was seeking an appraisal for the building and writing up a deed that will define the conveyance and restrictions on the building to the new buyer. 

It’s been nine months since then, and the Postal Service has yet to hold a public meeting.  This, despite the fact that the NHPA says, “Public involvement is a key ingredient in successful Section 106 consultation, and the views of the public should be solicited and considered throughout the process” (italics added).

When asked last August about when there might be a meeting, USPS spokesperson Eva Jackson said that the Postal Service would eventually hold a community meeting to address the reasons for the sale.  "But there's a lot that's going to happen before we get to a meeting," said Jackson.  "There are a lot of steps we have to take, by law, and it's a long process." 

The Postal Service has apparently been working behind the scenes all this time on taking those steps.  A public meeting should have happened long ago.  The Postal Service should have also opened the process to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) and the California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), but it’s not known at this point whether that’s happened or not.

 

The closure notice

Anyway, back to the chronology.  The Postal Service announced its plan to sell the building on March 2, 2012.  On March 20, the Redlands Historical Museum Association wrote the Postal Service that it wanted to buy the building, but it was told that there was a four-month due diligence period before it could be listed for sale.

By July 2012, the building was listed on the CBRE-USPS website as "coming soon."  That listing has since been removed, perhaps because someone realized it was premature.  (Same thing happened with the historic post office in Derby, Connecticut, which had its listing removed from the CBRE website.)

In August 2012, the Postal Service indicated it was working on the Section 106 procedures, but no meeting was scheduled — "a lot of steps" still needed to be done first.

Then, in March 2013, customers at the Brookside post office found a note in their PO boxes from the Officer in Charge (OIC), saying the following

“Effective April 1, 2013 Brookside Station Post Office will no longer accept renewals on your PO box unit.  Brookside Station is preparing for closure in the near future.  All services will be transferred to our main office located at 404 New York Street in Redlands.”

There are a couple of problems with this notice.  First, it has the status of the two Redlands post offices backwards.  It calls the Brookside Avenue facility a station and refers to the New York Street facility as the main office.  

Apparently the OIC is a little confused about where he works.  The Brookside facility is definitely the Main Post Office of Redlands — that's how it's described in the USPS press release announcing the planned consolidation, the USPS facilities list, the nomination form for the National Register, and everywhere else. 

This may seem like a relatively minor error — most people wouldn't know the difference between a main post office and a station — but the Postal Service has made a huge deal out of the distinction when it has fought closing appeals at the PRC, claiming that stations and branches aren't entitled to an appeal like a main post office.

In any case, the more serious problem with the notice is that it clearly indicates that the Brookside post office is closing and being sold.  It’s impossible, at this point, for the Postal Service to proceed with the Section 106 procedures and a discontinuance study in good faith. 

One of the main purposes of both processes is to give the public and stakeholder agencies an opportunity to comment before a final decision is made.  What good are the comments if a decision has already been made and announced?

That notice, intended no doubt to help customers make the transition to another post office, could come back to haunt the Postal Service. 

 

Conducting the process in good faith

Last week the Postal Service finally announced that it would be holding a public meeting about the Brookside post office.  It's scheduled for May 21, at the Brookside post office, from 6 to 7 p.m. 

Judging by the wording of the news report, it appears that the meeting is intended to fulfill the Postal Service’s obligations under the regulations for a discontinuance.  It’s possible, however, that the meeting is being held to fulfill Section 106 requirements.  Or perhaps the Postal Service is still deciding whether to do a relocation or discontinuance.  Hopefully, before the meeting, the Postal Service will clarifiy exactly what regulatory framework it’s operating under.

In any case, it looks as though the meeting will be short and sweet, just an hour.  That’s hardly enough time for residents of Redlands to express their concerns.  Much of the hour is likely to be spent watching the Postal Service give a Powerpoint presentation showing how bad its financial situation is and how nicely other historic post offices have been repurposed.  It will probably be the same presentation they gave at Berkeley a few weeks ago.

One of the main purposes of the regulations governing both discontinuance studies and the sale of historic properties is to give the public and other invested parties an opportunity to provide input into the decision before it’s made.  The process is not supposed to be an occasion for the Postal Service to justify a decision it’s already made.  The outcome of the process must be an open question.

In the case of Redlands, the Postal Service has left little doubt what the end result will be.  The way the process has been conducted so far — as exemplified by the notice placed in PO boxes a few weeks ago — shows that a decision has already been made.   

If and when the Postal Service issues a final determination to discontinue the Redlands Brookside post office, that decision may very well be appealed to the PRC. It will then be up to the Commissioners to determine if the Postal Service followed the discontinuance law in good faith.  Considering that customers have already been told that the post office is closing, that will be a tough argument for the Postal Service to make.


Photo credits: Redlands Brookside post office and  lobby;  Karlie Miller gathering signatures; Lugonia Stationpost office boxes in the Brookside PO; historic plaque; Redlands postal museumanother angle on Brooksideman opening box in Brookside;   Brookside at sunset.

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