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Postal Service Continues Push to Sell Post Office Despite Legal Challenges

By Patrick Wall | July 23, 2013 10:22am
 Opponents have filed appeals and even proposed legislation to stop the sale of the Bronx General Post Office, but the USPS says it is "moving forward" with its plan.
Bronx General Post Office
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CONCOURSE — The United States Postal Service is proceeding with a plan to sell the Bronx General Post Office building even as critics appealed to federal regulators that oversee the service and a congressman called for a freeze on the sale of such historic properties.

Bronx residents and a labor coalition filed appeals with the Postal Regulatory Commission earlier this month claiming that the USPS decision to sell the landmarked building was “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of federal rules.

The USPS filed a motion to dismiss the appeals last week, which the petitioners plan to challenge.

Meanwhile, Rep. José Serrano added a provision to a spending bill that would halt the sale of historic post offices until the USPS Inspector General completes an audit, launched this month, of the agency’s nationwide effort to sell off those properties as a cost-saving measure.

“We cannot have the gems of our communities, often landmarked and protected, sold by the USPS to the top bidder in a wanton and careless manner,” Serrano said in a statement Friday.

Despite the appeals and the ongoing audit, whose final report is due in October, the USPS says it intends to continue seeking a buyer for the Bronx post office.

“We believe we have met all of our legal requirements, so we’re moving forward,” USPS spokeswoman Maureen Marion said Monday.

The agency announced its desire to sell the New Deal-era post office on the Grand Concourse on Dec. 31, explaining that it currently only requires a fraction of the space offered by the block-long building.

The agency held a required public meeting on the proposal in February, then announced in March it would sell the building as planned and relocate its services to a smaller facility somewhere else in the 10451 zip code area.

This provoked a flurry of written objections, including letters from 21 individuals, several organizations and one from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. that was co-signed by 28 different lawmakers.

“We are appalled that, despite requests for further community consultative processes,” the USPS decided to put the historic post office up for sale, the letter read.

In June, the agency issued a response, saying “the objections expressed do not outweigh the financial exigencies facing the Postal Service” and that the plan would proceed.

The opponents then filed their appeals.

Critics argue that the USPS rushed into its decision to unload the Bronx General Post Office without genuinely involving the public in the process, violating federal preservation laws.

“It seems to view legal requirements that it conduct a public participation process simply as an obstacle to be overcome,” Steve Hutkins, a New York University professor who filed an appeal of the decision, wrote on his website about post office closings.

In an email, Hutkins added, “While the appeals may not be able to stop the sale of the Bronx post office completely,” they could force the USPS to engage the public in a more thorough review of its decision.

Critics also question the wisdom of selling historic post offices, which some consider a needless “privatization” of cherished public spaces when the agency could find other ways to save money.

In the case of the Bronx post office, they are especially fearful about the fate of 13 murals of American workers painted inside the lobby in the 1930s by the renowned Social Realist artist Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn.

While the building’s exterior is protected by the city’s landmark laws, its interior is not — though the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is reviewing a request to grant them protected status, a spokeswoman said.

In his June decision letter, USPS Vice President of Facilities Tom Samra defended the agency’s public engagement process and argued that the rigorous review rules that govern the closing of an historic post office do not apply because the Bronx site is simply being relocated, not closed.

He also said the USPS would retain ownership of the murals even after selling the building, and that the public would still have access to them.

He added that the new postal facility will offer the same services and hours of operation and no jobs will be lost in the move.

“While the Postal Service is not insensitive to the impact of this decision on its customers and the Bronx community, the relocation of the Bronx [General Post Office] is in the best interest of the Postal Service,” he wrote.