Discontinuances discontinued: Where have all the closures gone?

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The Postal Service may be taking a new line on downsizing its retail network.  Instead of big plans and long lists of potential closures, the Postal Service is apparently adopting a more incremental approach.

After years of talking about closing thousands of post offices — after all the announcements of new initiatives, after all the town meetings, advisory opinions, appeals, and everything else — the Postal Service has managed to close about eight hundred post offices since 2008, most of them last year.

That’s about twice the annual closure rate for the past 40 years (about a hundred a year), but it’s a far cry from what the Postal Service was envisioning just a few months ago, and it’s certainly not enough to please Darrell Issa, whose postal reform legislation would create a Postal BRAC Commission  to close thousands of post offices and processing facilities.

In fact, it looks as though the number of closures for 2012 will be well below average.  Since the moratorium began in December, the Postal Service appears not to have gone through a full discontinuance process — initiating a feasibility study, developing the proposal, issuing a final determination notice, and actually closing the doors – for a single post office.

The Postal Service started the big push to close post offices in 2009 with the Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation initiative (SBOC) — a plan to close over 3,000 urban and suburban post offices.  In January 2011, there was talk of closing 2,000 small rural post offices.

Then in July 2011, the Postal Service presented the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), a plan to close 3,700 post offices.  It also published a list of over 700 more that had already been initiated for discontinuance study.

In September, the Deputy Postmaster General said that another list of 4,000 was in the works.  On several occasions, the Postmaster General himself said he planned to close as many as 15,000 post offices.  As recently as January 2012, the Postal Service was telling the PRC to expect “mass closures.”

That was the rhetoric.  The reality is POStPlan, which will keep 13,000 small post offices open by reducing their hours and getting rid of their postmasters.  And that’s about it.   No 15,000 post offices getting shuttered, no mass closures.  Not a bang but a whimper.

 

What’s going on?

That’s not to say that post offices haven’t been closing.  There have been several “emergency suspensions” over lease problems.  The latest case occurred on July 21 in Memphis, where the Crosstown Station closed because the Postal Service and the landlord “did not reach an agreement to renew the lease.”

There have also been “relocations,” that is, the post office closes and retail services are moved to a carrier annex or some other undesirable spot, but that process doesn’t require a discontinuance study (at least according to the Postal Service and the PRC).

The Postal Service is also selling off its properties.  More than forty historic post office buildings have been sold or put on the market.

Just last Thursday, there was a meeting in Santa Monica about the proposed sale of its historic New Deal post office.  The Postal Service says it plans to move retail services to a carrier annex located in what one citizen described as “a desert.”  And while the Postal Service held a meeting with the community, there won’t be a full discontinuance process for that post office either.

There have been a few discontinuance studies and final determinations — there were lots of them in late 2011 and early 2012 — but those post offices didn’t close due to the moratorium.  Now the closure decisions have been superseded by POStPlan, and the final determinations are being held in abeyance.

According to in Postal Bulletin, which lists official discontinuances in its Address Management section, only a handful of discontinuances have occurred over the past few months and they were all for post offices that were suspended long ago.  These discontinuances were basically just cleaning up loose ends.

It’s not clear exactly what’s going on.  The moratorium ended in May, and the Postal Service could easily have picked up where it left off.  The 13,000 POStPlan offices may be off the table, but there are 19,000 other post offices that could be reviewed for closure.  The Postal Service doesn’t seem interested.

It may be that management has lost its taste for discontinuance studies.  Months of bad press, the public outcry, and the wrong kind of attention from Congress has perhaps led management to rethink its big plans for mass closures.

Or it may be that the Postal Service is just biding its time and waiting for the right moment to resume the closures.  Perhaps after the election and busy holiday mailing season, it will get back to the business of dismantling the retail network.  In the meantime, the Postal Service will get started on community meetings for POStPlan.

Eventually, the POStPlan offices will be in danger of closing because of falling revenues — the inevitable result of cutting hours — but the Postal Service has made it clear to the Postal Regulatory Commission that it’s serious about keeping these post offices open rather than looking for opportunities to close them.  It’s reassured the PRC that it won’t be declaring lots of emergency suspensions over lease problems or staffing issues.

For the foreseeable future, it looks as though there won’t be any big new initiatives to close thousands of post offices.  Instead, post offices will close one by one, and the network will be dismantled more slowly.  A post office will be sold one day; a week later, another will be suspended when the lease ends; sometime later, we’ll hear of another relocation to a distant annex.  It will go like something like this:

 

The New Deal post office in Puyallup

Out in Washington state, the Postal Service closed the downtown post office in Redmond on Friday of last week and relocated retail services to a carrier annex.  It looks like the same thing may be happening in Puyallup and Bellevue.

Puyallup is a few miles southeast of Tacoma.  Its post office is a 1935 New Deal building, one of 95 historic properties in the downtown area (photo at the top).  The whole area is undergoing a revitalization effort centered on a civic cluster that includes city hall, the public library, the police station, and the post office.

Now it looks as though the downtown post office will be closed and sold.  It has been on the market since 2009, when it was originally listed for sale by CB Richard Ellis, the huge real estate corporation that has become the Postal Service’s exclusive broker.

Last year, the Postal Service also started talking about moving the carriers.  They’re finally getting around to that.  Puyallup appears on the current list of DUOs, and the moving date is September 29, 2012.  It’s very likely that efforts to sell the post office will intensify, and a relocation of retail services may not be far off.

 

Two for one in Bellevue

In Bellevue, just east of Seattle, the Postal Service may be closing two post offices in the same town — the main post office on 1171 Bellevue Way and the Midlakes branch on 11405 NE 2nd Place.

In March 2011, when the Postal Service first announced that it planned to move the carriers out of the downtown office, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson assured customers that the downtown post office wouldn’t be closing.  Then in December, the Postal Service told the city council that it planned to close both the downtown and Midlakes offices and that it was searching for a new location in downtown or just on the eastern side of Interstate 405.

In April of this year, the Postal Service announced that it had its eyes on a location about a mile and a half away from either of the current post offices and outside of downtown Bellevue.  Bellevue city manager Steve Sarkozy said that the new location was “disappointing,” and that for many people, “to try get all the way out to that area from a downtown or west Bellevue location is not helpful.”  Bellevue councilman John Chelminiak said simply, “In my mind it’s not an acceptable location.”

The Postal Service used to own the downtown Bellevue post office, but it sold the building in 2011 (again, with the help of CB Richard Ellis), and then leased it back from the new owner for a couple of years.  The lease runs till May 3, 2013.

It was the same story with the Midlakes branch.  The Postal Service owned the building, sold it, and leased it back for a couple of years.  The carriers were DUOed on June 6, 2012.

The plan is to close both post offices and merge them into a single retail space sometime before next June.  Apparently both closures will go down as relocations, even though it’s hard to understand how you can relocate two post offices to the same place and not do a discontinuance study on at least one of them.

 

Two more in DC

On the other side of the country, the Postal Service may be poised to close a couple of post offices not far from postal headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza.  There don’t seem to be any news reports about these two cases, so the following is just speculation.

The Farragut Station post office at 1800 M Street NW is located in a huge new office building near DuPont Circle.  The lease ended on September 14, 2011, but apparently some sort of extension or renewal is in effect because according to the USPS website the post office is still open.

The Twentieth Street Station at 2001 M Street NW is in the lobby of a building that’s going to be completely renovated, so the Postal Service may have no choice but to vacate that location. The lease runs till October 13, 2013.

There’s been no announcement about either of these post offices, but in April of this year, the Postal Service filed notice with FedBizUpps.Gov that it intended to “to solicit proposals for an alternative location and consolidation of the retail post office operations the offices known as the Twentieth Street Station and the Farragut Station.”

The listing says the Postal Service is seeking approximately 5,000 square feet, with a loading dock and parking for about 23 cars.  The listing specifies the preferred location — an area bound by Q, K, 18th and 22nd streets.

There are numerous post offices in close proximity to each other in DC, so perhaps the Postal Service will simply call the closings — if they do happen — consolidations or relocations or whatever, and simply skip a discontinuance process.

 

And two more in Austin

The Postal Service may also be doing the two-for-one relocation dance in Austin, Texas.  The East Austin Station on East Sixth Street has been there for a half century, but the building is changing hands, and the new owner wants to put in a restaurant, so it looks as though the lease won’t be renewed when it ends in September 2013.  Folks aren’t happy about losing what one customer called “a community institution.”

The nearest post office is the Downtown Station about a mile and a half away, but that one may be closing too.  The Postal Service sold the building in May, and it says it will be moving out in early 2013.  The carriers at the downtown station are already being relocated in anticipation of the move.

No word from the Postal Service about its precise plans, but it looks as though the two post offices could be replaced by a single facility, location to be determined.

 

Cassville, from PO to pet funerals

The Postal Service leases the building for the Cassville Station post office in Jackson, New Jersey.  The building is listed as for sale, but they may have already found a buyer.  A news item in June says it may be turned into a funeral home for pets.  The lease with the Postal Service expires on December 21, 2012.  The facility does not appear on the current DUO list, but rumor has it that the Postal Service has started to move the rural carriers to the main station in Jackson, six miles away.

 

Outrage in Bayside

The main Bayside post office on 42nd Avenue in Queens, New York, is set to be relocated to a remote annex on 216th Street.  Congressman Gary Ackerman is doing what he can to stop the move, which is apparently happening early next year (even though the lease runs through July 2014).

“Moving the Bayside branch from its prime spot in the middle of the area’s busy commercial strip to a remote and inconvenient location makes absolutely no sense,” Ackerman said. “Not only would this plan adversely impact the local residents and businesses who use this facility, but it could likely cause a further erosion in postal business since its customers may not trek to this out of the way location.”

The Bayside post office has been in its current location since 1955, it’s a neighborhood landmark, and there’s parking.  The new location is a carrier annex on a dead-end street that abuts the Long Island Rail Road tracks, and there’s not much parking — postal workers leave their cars on the street, sometimes double-parking.  The annex could become even more isolated because the city may remove a rundown pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Jerry Iannece, chairman of Community Board 11 and a Bayside resident, did not mince words about the plan: “It’s shortsightedness and bureaucratic garbage.”  The Bayside post office is one of the busiest in Queens, he said, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  “We can protest and show our outrage,” said Iannece, “but I think they’ve made up their mind.”

Photo credits: Puyallup, WA post office; Santa Monica CA post office; Puyallup PO;  Midlakes WA post office; Bellevue, WA downtown post office; Farragut Station post office; East Austin TX post officeCassville NJ post officeBayside, NY post office.

(Thanks again to Don Cheney for help on the Washington post offices.)

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