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Union, Activists and Officials Fight Sale of Landmark Bronx Post Office

By Alice Speri | January 15, 2014 1:11pm
 Critics say the USPS should find ways to keep open the iconic New Deal-era building.
Bronx General Post Office Fight Continues
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CONCOURSE – Bronx officials, activists and union representatives are calling on the United States Postal Service to immediately halt its sale of the Bronx General Post Office – a plan they have contested in the past.

The 170,000-square-foot building on East 149th Street and the Grand Concourse, filled with murals from the 1930s, was listed on the “USPS Properties for Sales” website, run by the real estate company CBRE Group. The deadline for offers was recently updated to next Wednesday, a short window that indicates an interested buyer has likely come forward, critics said.

Postal workers criticized the agency’s lack of transparency in the transaction and disregard for community opposition. They called for a moratorium on the sale and an independent investigation to establish whether the neighborhood’s demographics dictated the decision to sell.

“It is time to determine what role racism plays in these decisions,” said Chuck Zlatkin, legal and political director for the New York Metro Area Postal Union. “Ninety percent of the people who go there are Latino or African American. And it’s not just the racism, it’s also the economics: this post office is located in the poorest congressional district in the country.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Jose Serrano issued a statement also calling on the postal service to halt all transactions until after the release of a pending Inspector General report on their legality. The inspection, requested by Serrano, will examine whether the USPS is following preservation laws in its historic building sales and whether it has solicited enough public input in the process.

Congetta Chirichello, a spokeswoman for the USPS, said the sale process is moving ahead and the agency has complied with preservation regulations.

“The postal service will continue to move forward with the sale and is entertaining offers presented by potential buyers,” she said in an email.

The USPS announced last year that it planned to sell the historic building, saying it only requires a fraction of that space and could relocate to a smaller facility in the same 10451 zip code.

Chirichello said the agency was forced to sell off buildings as mail volume declined more than 50 percent in the past 10 years, causing a steep decline in revenue.

Critics say the relocation would inconvenience customers – already dealing with delays after the agency closed its only processing center in the Bronx.

But it is the fate of the building itself — and, in particular, 13 murals of American workers painted inside the marble-lined lobby — that galvanized most. The building has been listed as a historic landmark since 1976, but it is not until last month that the interior murals, painted by social realist artist Ben Shahn and his wife, Bernarda, and entitled “America at Work,” were also granted the same protected status.

The postal union demanded an investigation to explain why the Bronx post office was put on the market while a similarly contested proposal to sell the Old Chelsea Station post office in Manhattan was eventually abandoned. The USPS made its Chelsea proposal known at a large, well-publicized community hearing in the evening, while the Bronx one was held with little notice on a weekday morning, making it harder for residents to attend, the union said.

Zlatkin said the union did not learn the property had been listed until this week, when Steve Hutkins, a NYU professor and author of the blog “Save the Post Office,” alerted them that the window for offers is closing shortly.

“If you look at the pattern of where post offices are closing, they are frequently in inner city neighborhoods, though not exclusively in those neighborhoods,” said Hutkins.  “They rarely change their mind, so why did they change their mind about Old Chelsea and not about the Bronx?”

Hutkins and several Bronx residents filed an appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission last summer to challenge the USPS’s decision to relocate the post office and sell the building. After that appeal failed they took the case to a federal court, where a decision is pending — a legal challenge that will not affect a potential sale.

No asking price was specified on the USPS sales website, but the post office is also listed on real estate sites LoopNet and PropertyShark, which set the building’s market value as $14,626,000.

National Post Office Collaborate – a group that has fought post office closures across the country – called the Bronx’s post office a “public legacy” and said that it will file its own lawsuit against the USPS if the sale is not halted.