The writing on the wall in Reading: The Postal Service pulls a fast one

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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.

 

Relocating Reading

The Reading post office was built in 1917.  As the Daily Times Chronicle reported on March 2, 1917, the post office was to be “a valuable addition to the public buildings in the town,” with impressive design and ornamental enhancements like Corinthian columns and a water fountain in front of the building.  The U.S. Treasury Department authorized $55,000 for the construction, but the total cost was probably three or four times that amount.

Last year, the Reading post office was appraised at $1,740,100.  It has 17,000 square feet of interior space, including the basement, and there are 62 parking spaces, plus a loading zone and other exterior spaces.

The Postal Service says that due to declining mail volumes it no longer needs such a large space and could make do with 1,700 square feet for a small retail office.  The Postal Service says it might rent back some space in the current post office building from the new owner, but that’s not likely.  The Postal Service always tells people that, just as a sop to soften the blow of losing the post office.

The Postal Service says there’s a lot of excess space in the Reading office, but there are 30 letter carriers and a few clerks in the facility who will need to be transferred to a postal facility in Woburn. 

The Postal Service says that in making tough decisions like closing a historic post office, it's just trying to act "like a business."  But the Postal Service is not a business.  It's a government agency, and as such, it's governed by a host of laws and regulations.  

In order to sell a historic post office like the one in Reading, the Postal Service must go through two legal processes, one for making its decision to relocate the retail services and a second to sell a historic building.  The first is governed by the Code of Federal Regulations, CFR 241.4, the section on “Expansion, relocation, and construction of post offices.”  The second, discussed below, involves Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

The regulations on relocating a post office are not particularly stringent — nothing like those that must be followed in order to close a post office completely.  When Congress made laws about expanding, relocating, and constructing post offices, legislators probably weren't thinking about the significant impacts associated with closing a historic downtown landmark and “relocating” retail services elsewhere.  The average person can’t even understand how closing down a historic post office comes under the category of “relocation.”

 

The meeting venue

While they may not be very extensive or detailed, the regulations on relocations clearly guarantee an opportunity for public input before a final decision is made.  There needs to be sufficient notice to the public, a comment period, a meeting, and an opportunity to appeal.  

CFR 241.4 has this to say about the meeting: The Postal Service should ask elected officials “that a Postal Service presentation of the project be placed on the regular agenda of a public meeting or hearing.  If no such meeting is planned within the next 60 days or the agenda of a planned meeting cannot accommodate the project, the USPS will schedule its own public hearing concerning the project, and will advertise the meeting or hearing in a local general circulation newspaper.”

The regulations give the Postal Service a choice between doing a presentation at a regular meeting of an elected body or holding a separate meeting focused exclusively on the post office.  In most cases, the agenda for a town meeting cannot accommodate something as significant as the decision to sell a historic post office, but the  Postal Service much prefers to do it that way.  It’s much easier to remain under radar by making a brief presentation at a regular meeting of a town council (or whatever the ruling body is called).  Such meetings are routine, and they’re typically not well attended by the public.  A separate meeting focused exclusively on the post office, however, can attract quite a crowd. 

Last month in Reading, the Postal Service took the easy way.  Rather than holding a meeting focused only the post office issues, it sent real estate specialist Joseph Mulvey to a regular meeting of the Reading Board of Selectmen.  

Mr. Mulvey is the Postal Service’s front man on the relocation and sale of post offices in the Northeast.  He knows all about public meetings on post office relocations.  In New York City, where there are at least five relocations underway, Mr. Mulvey asked to be put on the agenda of a March meeting of the Manhattan Borough Board so he could talk about some of them. 

Upon hearing that Mr. Mulvey was on the agenda, Chuck Zlatkin, Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, immediately suspected that Mulvey would use his presentation at the Board meeting to say that the Postal Service had fulfilled its public-meeting obligation under CFR 241.  Zlatkin warned elected representatives throughout the city, and they brought pressure on the Postal Service to hold separate meetings in each impacted neighborhood.  As a result, there were meetings for each of the post offices being relocated — Old Chelsea, Peter Stuyvesant, and Triborough — and Mr. Mulvey had to contend with hundreds of angry citizens complaining vociferously.

Unfortunately, the folks in Reading probably did not understand that the Postal Service would use Mr. Mulvey’s brief presentation at the Board of Selectmen to fulfill the agency’s requirement to have a public meeting.  Now the Postal Service doesn’t need to hold a separate meeting about the relocation of the Reading post office, and the public will have missed its opportunity to speak up.

 

Advance notice

In addition to attending or holding a public meeting, CFR 241.4 requires the Postal Service to give sufficient advance notice to the public about the upcoming meeting.  It's supposed to post a notice in the lobby of the post office and send a press release to the media so there's an announcement in the local newspaper.  But it doesn’t look like the Postal Service did a very good job on that score.

The Postal Service did produce a public notice intended to inform the public of the proposed relocation of the Reading post office, and the notice clearly states that the Postal Service would present its proposal at the April 9th meeting of the Board of Selectmen.  But for some reason, the notice did not make it into the local news.  There was no mention of the Postal Service’s presentation at the forthcoming meeting in the Reading Advocate, the HomeNewsHear.com, or the Reading Patch.  Perhaps the Postal Service didn't distribute the notice to the media, or perhaps these media outlets didn't see fit to publish it.

In advance of the April 9th meeting, Reading Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner published a Notice of Public Hearing about the upcoming April 9th meeting in the local newspaper.  It states that a local restaurant's request for a liquor license would be on the agenda.  There’s no mention that the fate of the post office would also be under discussion, and there's no evidence that the Postal Service published such a Notice of Public Hearing either.

It’s possible that the notice about the Postal Service’s upcoming presentation at the Board meeting was posted somewhere in the Reading post office, but if so, it doesn’t look as though anyone paid much attention.  Perhaps it was posted discreetly, where not many people would see it. 

All in all, then, it’s very likely that hardly anyone in Reading knew that the future of the post office was on the Board’s agenda on April 9.  And you can be sure that very few people understood that this was going to be the only opportunity the public would have to meet with postal officials before they made a final decision on the relocation.

 

The public meeting

The agenda for the April 9th meeting of the Board of Selectmen shows that the Postal Service’s presentation was allotted 30 minutes.  It’s described simply as “Presentation – US Postal Service re: Plans for Reading Post Office.”   Mr. Mulvey probably used most of the 30 minutes giving his presentation, and there was very little time, if any, for hearing from the public.

Despite the significance of closing a post office that’s nearly a century old, Mr. Mulvey’s presentation to the Board was sandwiched between a report about an affordable housing trust fund and an application for a liquor license at a local pizza joint. 

In advance of the April 9th Board meeting, Mr. Hechenbleikner distributed a folder of materials about the items on the agenda.  It contains over 100 pages, including 25 pages on the affordable housing matter and more than 20 pages about the liquor license. 

There are three pages about the post office — a brief letter from Mr. Mulvey to Mr. Hechenbleikner about the planned sale, a brief memo to the Board from Mr. Hechenbleikner about his meeting with Mr. Mulvey, and a brief description of the property.  That's it, just those three pages.

Mr. Mulvey’s letter is interesting for the way it frames the situation: “In order to sustain universal service mail service to the American people,” writes Mulvey, “it is imperative that the Postal Service adjust its retail, delivery, and mail processing networks to match America’s changing communication trends and the anticipated continued decline in mail volume.”  Mr. Mulvey goes on to explain that the an “optimization study” has determined that the Reading post office is an “underutilized asset” that needs to be “right sized.” 

In other words, the Postal Service says that its ability to fulfill its universal service mission hinges on selling historic post offices like the one in Reading.  If you put it that way, what patriotic American could possibly object? 

Needless to say, there’s no mention in Mulvey’s letter about other alternatives — like leasing out the extra space, or encouraging Congress to rescind the mandate on the health care prepayments (the $5.5 billion annual payments are responsible for 80 percent of the $40 billion deficit), or asking a few big mailers to pay more on postage (the Postal Service loses over $1.5 billion a year on mail that doesn’t cover its attributable costs). 

For communities like Reading, those alternatives would be a lot less painful than selling landmark post offices in the heart of downtown. 

 

The public comment period

In addition to describing the notification procedures and the venue for the public meeting, CFR 241.4 says there needs to be a public comment period, and "not less than 15 days after the date of the most recent public meeting,” the Postal Service may “make a decision that takes into account community input and is consistent with postal objectives.” 

In other words, the comment period must be at least 15 days, but it could be longer, and in some cases, like La Jolla, California, several months passed between the meeting and the final decision.  In the case of Reading, however, Mr. Mulvey informed town officials that the public comment period would end exactly 15 days after it began.  He appeared at the council meeting on April 9, and he closed the comment period on April 24.

Given how little notice there was about the meeting, it’s not likely that many people took note of this short window of opportunity to comment.  One of the two news articles about the Board meeting doesn’t even mention a public comment period; the other is better — it mentions the April 24 deadline and provides an address where to send the letters.  Both articles, however, make it sound as if the decision is a done deal, so there’s not much incentive to comment anyway.

CFR 241.4 also provides for a 30-day appeal period, so once the Postal Service announces its final decision, there will be one more opportunity to provide written comments.  But there won’t be another meeting on the relocation decision, and it’s not likely that appeals will do any good either.  They are probably reviewed by the same postal officials who made the decision in the first place.

 

Section 106

As noted above, in order to sell a historic post office, the Postal Service must go through two processes, one for making a decision about relocating retail services and another for selling a historic building.  The sale is governed by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which “requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties.” 

The Postal Service is required to give all interested parties — the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the general public — “a reasonable opportunity to comment on such undertakings.”

The federal regulations that implement Section 106 are described in considerable detail in 36 CFR Part 800 on the “Protection of Historic Properties.”  These regulations state, “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.”

The Postal Service has been ignoring this provision in the regulations, however, by segmenting the two processes: It does the relocation process first, then the Section 106 on the sale.  Thus, by the time the public can get involved on the issue of the sale, it's anything but "early in the undertaking's planning."  Instead, it’s a fait accompli.  The Postal Service has already made a decision to relocate, without ever giving anyone an opportunity to consider a “broad range of alternatives.”

One of those alternatives might be for the Postal Service to lease out the excess space in the post office.  There’s actually a federal regulation, 41 CFR 102-73.20, that requires government agencies to "extend priority consideration to available space in buildings under the custody and control" of the Postal Service.  The Postal Service should thus be notifying other government agencies that it has some extra space in the post office that may be available for leasing.  

 

The future of the Reading post office

While the Postal Service has not issued a final decision on the relocation of the Reading post office and while the appeals period hasn’t even begun, and even though the Postal Service has given no indication that it has yet to initiate a Section 106 procedure, the decision to sell the Reading post office looks like a done deal.

Last month’s news report on the latest developments makes this quite clear: “Reading officials have been notified by the United States Postal Service that it will go ahead with a plan to find a buyer for the building on Haven Street that currently houses the Reading Post Office, shifting the staff there to a facility on Washington Street in Woburn.  The building, located at 136 Haven Street, will be listed for sale in the coming weeks.”  That assessment of the situation leaves little doubt that the Postal Service will be selling the building.

Though more than eligible, the Reading post office is not on the National Register of Historic Places.  It iis on the Reading List of Historic Structures, but that doesn't do much to protect the building.  Last June, when news of a possible sale first came out, the Reading Historical Commission issued a statement clarifying what the law has to say about the matter.

There’s really nothing in the law ensuring that the building will be preserved.  The sale would fall under Reading's By-Law on Demolition of Structures of Potential Historical Significance, which allows the Reading Historical Commission to review and work with the property owner and other interested parties before any demolition permits are issued by the Building Inspector.  That doesn’t mean the building couldn’t be razed, however.  Should the new owner decide to preserve the building, there's nothing in the law preventing him from making significant alterations.  The Historical Commission can educate, inform, and advise, but it has little regulatory power.

The future of the Reading post office will be in the hands of the new owner, whoever that turns out to be.  One thing you can be sure of.  The people in Reading will have very little say about the matter.  The Postal Service will sell the building to whomever it wants.


Photo credits: Reading MA post office.

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