Newark’s Lautenberg Post Office may be sold: Is the Senator rolling over in his grave?

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The General Services Administration (GSA) is looking to purchase the Frank L. Lautenberg Post Office and Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, from the Postal Service.  According to a GSA prospectus from April 2013, the GSA would “demolish the postal workspace for future useable office space.”

The prospectus says the Postal Service currently occupies about 300,000 square feet of the building’s 430,000 square feet of rentable space.  The GSA leases the rest of the building from the Postal Service for use by the US Court of Appeals, the US District Court, and the US Marshals.

The proposed purchase price is $23 million.  After a $43 million renovation, the GSA could use the space now occupied by the Postal Service to relocate some its offices out of leased spaces in and around Newark and ultimately save the government some money.

Two-thirds of the square footage being occupied by the Postal Service is, as the GSA puts it, “functionally vacant.”  The mail processing work that used to be done there was consolidated with the plant in Kearny, New Jersey, in 2010.

The Lautenberg building still houses Newark’s Main Post Office, however, so selling it to the GSA raises some interesting questions.

Normally, before the Postal Service decides to dispose of a building housing a post office, it needs to do through a legal procedure to shut down the retail facility.  It can go through a discontinuance study to close the post office completely, or it can go find a new space for a retail postal facility and just go through a relocation procedure.  (The differences are explained here.)

In most recent cases, like Venice, La Jolla, Ukiah, Berkeley, and the Bronx, the Postal Service has separated the process into two stages: first a relocation process, then a decision on whether or not to sell the building.  One interesting exception is Redlands, California, where the Postal Service is going through a discontinuance procedure to close the downtown office completely and then sell the historic building.

What’s the Postal Service going to do in Newark?

Conceivably, the Postal Service could lease back some space in the building from the GSA and maintain a retail post office in the building.  That would avoid the necessity for a discontinuance or relocation procedure.  But that doesn’t seem to be part of the GSA’s plan.  The prospectus refers twice to its plan to “demolish the postal workspace,” and there’s no reference to renting space for a post office in the building.

If it can’t lease space in the building, the Postal Service would have to find an alternative approach.  It could, as in Redlands, simply discontinue the main post office and tell people in Newark to use one of the other post offices in the city.  The Midtown Station post office is just six blocks away.

Or it could relocate the post office somewhere else in downtown Newark, probably a small leased space in a nondescript building, just for retail services.  But that raises another question: Will the new post office still be called the Frank L. Lautenberg Post Office?

When the Postal Service decided to relocate the Sergeant Riayan A. Tejada Post Office in Washington Heights, New York, it kept the name, even though the new space was just a small retail office in a leased property.  Not much of an honor for a fallen soldier perhaps, but the Postal Service certainly didn’t want to take the name away.

Mr. Lautenberg died just a few weeks ago.  In 2000, when Mr. Lautenberg was about to retire from his career as a Senator, Congress named the Newark Post Office and Courthouse after him to pay tribute for a long career serving the people of New Jersey.  It’s hard to imagine his name on the door of a little rented retail post office.  That’s probably not what Congress had in mind.

Then there’s the question of if and when the Postal Service will go through a discontinuance or relocation process to close the post office in the building.  Is the Postal Service going to enter into an agreement to sell the building to the GSA before having gone through such a procedure?  Federal regulations require the Postal Service to partner with the public on such decisions.  It’s not supposed to make them unilaterally, and it’s not supposed to go through the process with the outcome predetermined.

The Newark Post Office was built in 1936 so it is eligible for, but not listed on, the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s a beautiful Greek Revival building on Federal Square, right in the heart of downtown Newark.  There’s a Depression-era statue of Lady Justice in the center of the third-floor rotunda.  Unfortunately, two murals are gone.  One depicted a child suffering from a factory accident and the other showed a playground basketball game.  A federal judge, apparently an ardent anti-communist, felt that the scenes might unfairly influence jurors and stopped the murals from being installed.  They were placed in storage and later destroyed. (The story, with more images, is here.)

Considering that the Postal Service is not using a couple of hundred thousand square feet, it’s probably for the best that the GSA is hoping to take over, do some much needed renovation, and put all the vacant space to use.  As this GSA report on historic building stewardship illustrates, the GSA does a great job taking care of landmark buildings — apparently much better than the Postal Service.

But maybe it would have been even better if the Postal Service had never moved the mail processing work to Kearny.  The post-implementation review done on the consolidation says the Postal Service was able to cut over 400 jobs and save nearly $40 million a year.  But according to a study about a similar consolidation in Springfield, Illinois, that savings to the Postal Service is costing the city of Newark something like $60 million a year in GDP.

Consolidating mail processing plants may save the Postal Service some money, but it comes at the expense of the communities the Postal Service is supposed to be serving.  And shedding some its real estate holdings may bring in some fast cash, but selling off landmark buildings in the heart of a city and relocating to indistinctive retail stores doesn’t add much to the prestige of the Postal Service.

(Photo credits: Lautenberg Post Office exteriorinterior shots; the late Senator Lautenbergstatue of Lady Justice; old postcard of the Newark PO.)

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