Relocating the Peter Stuyvesant Post Office: What happened to partnering with the public?

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The Postal Service is shutting down New York City’s Peter Stuyvesant Station at 432 East 14th Street and relocating retail services about a block away.  When it does a relocation like this, the Postal Service is supposed to follow section 241.4 of the Code of Federal Regulations on “Expansion, relocation, and construction of post offices."  But it appears that the law doesn’t count for much when the Postal Service is looking to save a few dollars on the rent.  It doesn’t look like customers matter much either.

The Peter Stuyvesant post office is located in a building that the Postal Service has been leasing since 1952.  It was constructed for the Department of the Post Office according to its specifications.  The building is old enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The long-term lease on the property ended in February 2013.  The Postal Service’s notice about the relocation of Peter Stuyvesant Station says, “We have been unable to reach agreement with the landlord on a new lease.” 

There may be another explanation.  A representative of the owner, Benenson Capital Partners, says that the Postal Service informed him that it didn’t need such a large space anymore, and that’s why it wasn’t renewing the lease.  (He told this to postal employees, Town & Village Blog, and me.)  In any case, the Postal Service negotiated a one-year lease extension to give it time to find a new location and do the necessary renovations. 

As required by CFR 241.4, the Postal Service proceeded to inform elected officials about the planned relocation and to get feedback from the public.  Then it was time for the community to wait for the decision and, if necessary, to appeal.  The Postal Service has yet to inform elected officials or the public about its decision, but it has definitely made one.  It has already made arrangements to move to the new space.  

Yesterday Jonathan Smith, president of New York Metro Area Postal Union, received a letter from the Postal Service stating that the Postal Service had found a new location for Peter Stuyvesant Station at 333 East 14th Street.  The letter says the move will take place once the renovations are completed, probably February 2014 (when the current lease expires).

Union officials immediately contacted elected officials about the letter to Smith and possible violations of CFR241.4.  Today Mr. Smith received another letter from the Postal Service.  This one provides a copy of an "Employee Update, Service Talk" that is "being provided" to employees of the Peter Stuyvesant Station.  The service talk says that the Postal Service has made a determination to proceed with the relocation, and in accordance with CFR241.4, it will be notifying elected officals and giving the community an opportunity to appeal.

The service talk itself is dated yesterday, May 29; the cover letter to Mr. Smith is dated May 30.  It's not clear at this point if the Postal Service prepared the service talk before or after union officials contacted elected officials about yesterday's letter to Smith.   

Either way, the Postal Service will have a hard time explaining how the community's input can be meaningful if it has already made arrangements to move to 333 East 14th Streeet.  The federal regulations on relocations are intended to ensure that the community has time and opportunity "to be a partner in the decision-making process."  The Postal Service seems to have forgotten its partner. 

 

Relocation mania

The Postal Service has been doing relocations like this all across the country.  Letter carriers are being consolidated into fewer facilities, and retail services are being relocated to smaller spaces.  If the post office is in a leased space, the Postal Service saves some money on the rent at the new, smaller location; if the Postal Service owns the building, the sale can bring in some quick money.

But the relocations mean longer distances between the carriers and their routes, which translates into more time and money for gas and labor.  It also means inconvenience for customers, who may need to travel further to the new post office (which may be located in a remote carrier annex) or to do transactions unavailable at the new location (like sending a large parcel).  If the old post office is in a historic building, the community loses a landmark as well.

Because of the potential impact on customers and the community, relocation decisions are supposed to involve the public.  In fact, one of the main purposes of the federal regulations on post office relocations is to give the community an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.  When it revised the regulations in 1998, the Postal Service wrote that the purpose of the revision was “to build into the facility project planning process specific opportunities and adequate time for the community to be a partner in the decision-making process and to have its views considered.”

The intention was good, but those words were written a long time ago.  These days, the Postal Service just makes the decision on its own, and then goes through the motions of the procedure prescribed by law.  Sometimes, as with the relocation of the Peter Stuyvesant Station, it doesn’t even bother going through the motions.

 

Notice to elected officials and customers

In February, the Postal Service initiated the official relocation procedures described in CFR 241.4 by informing elected officials like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer that it was considering plans to relocate retail services elsewhere in the neighborhood. 

The next step was for the Postal Service to either attend a regular meeting of elected officials or to hold a separate public meeting.  In March, USPS real estate specialist Joseph Mulvey asked to be put on the agenda of a Manhattan Borough board meeting to discuss several relocations underway in Manhattan — Peter Stuyvesant, Old Chelsea, and Triborough Stations.  That would have meant that very few people in the Lower East Side neighborhood served by Peter Stuyvesant Station would have had an opportunity to share their concerns, but it would have allowed the Postal Service to say that it had discharged its responsibility under CFR 241.4.

According to Sandro Sherrod, chairman of Community Board 6, that was exactly what Mr. Mulvey intended.  "Quite frankly,” said Sherrod, “in front of the borough meeting, [Mulvey] said that he felt that it was adequate public notice.”

Chuck Zlatkin, Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, suspected that Mr. Mulvey would use his visit to the Manhattan Borough Board to say that the Postal Service had fulfilled its meeting obligations for all three post offices, so he alerted several elected officials, and they pressured the Postal Service to hold separate meetings on each post office, in their own neighborhoods.

 

The April 22 meeting

The meeting about relocating the Peter Stuyvesant Station was held on April 22 at Campos Plaza Community Center.  Over a hundred people attended, and as the news report states, their mood grew from agitation to anger as the meeting progressed. 

The audience pressured Mr. Mulvey for information he was reluctant to reveal, but he finally admitted that the Postal Service already had a possible replacement location for the post office, 333 East 14th Street, former site of a Duane Reade drugstore.  Mulvey asked if that would be an acceptable location, and the audience responded with a resounding “No!”

According to the plan outlined by Mr. Mulvey, the new storefront would offer retail services, such as stamp sales and P.O. boxes.  But letter carriers and large parcel services would need to be moved elsewhere.

The carriers would be transferred to the Madison Square Station, on East 23rd Street near Third Ave.  Since most of the carrier routes served by Peter Stuyvesant Station are south of 14th Street and east of First Avenue, this new home for the carriers would be many blocks away from their routes. 

Large parcel services would operate out of the F.D.R. Station at 54th St. and Third Avenue.  That’s quite a ways away from the area served by Peter Stuyvesant.  For example, if you live at Tenth Street and Avenue B (like I once did), you have an eight-minute walk to the current post office on 14th Street.  It will take you 30 minutes on the bus to get to the FDR station, and that’s if traffic is light (the way it usually is in midtown Manhattan).

 

Lost in the mail

According to CFR 241.4, the Postal Service is supposed to wait at least 15 days after the public meeting before announcing a decision on a relocation.  At the April 22 meeting, Mr. Mulvey told people that they had until May 7 to submit written comments about the proposed relocation.  In other words, he gave the community the minimum number of days required by law.

Once the Postal Service comes to a decision about the relocation, it’s supposed to notify elected officials in writing and post a copy of the notification letter in the post office.  The letter is supposed to explain the Postal Service will take no action on the proposed relocation for at least 30 days, during which the community may file an appeal to the Vice President of Facilities.

The letter to elected officials apparently got lost in the mail.  The decision to relocate Peter Stuyvesant is not just a done deal.  The Postal Service has already made arrangements for the new space, as was made clear yesterday by the letter from the Postal Service to the president of New York Metro Area Postal Union saying that the post office would be relocated to 333 E. 14th Street in February.

According to Chuck Zlatkin, elected officials have not been notified about the Postal Service’s decision.  He checked with the offices of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and District 2 City Council member Rosie Mendez.  None of them had received a letter from the Postal Service stating that the relocation was moving forward and that the community had 30 days to appeal.

Today's letter to Mr. Smith suggests that the Postal Service is trying to straighten things out.  Elected officials will be notified, and the public will have an opportunity to appeal the relocation decision.  

It's hard to see what good appeals will do, however, if the Postal Service has already made arrangements to move to 333 E. 14th Street.  It would be interesting to know if the lease has already been signed, and if so, when that happened.  Was the lease agreement a done deal when Mr. Mulvey met with the community on April 22?  Maybe someone will ask him about that.

(Photo credits: Peter Stuyvesant Station; rear of post office; April 22 meeting on the relocation(former) Duane Reade at 333 E. 14 Street.)

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