The James A. Farley Post Office Building in Midtown Manhattan bears the famous inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Now a century old, it is the nation’s largest retail post office. Later this year, work is expected to begin on a $270 million, multiphase, four-year project that will partially convert the massive building into Moynihan Station, a regional transportation hub that will expand Penn Station’s western concourse for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit tracks.
An adaptive use project on the grandest scale, it is also a reminder of the enormous challenges the United States Postal Service (USPS) is facing. Despite the fact that the USPS has more retail locations than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Walmart, and Walgreens combined, business is struggling. Although it is a federal agency, it does not benefit from any tax subsidies; it is saddled with a mandate to prefund retiree health benefits; and it must fund operations almost entirely on the sale of first-class mail.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the prevalence of electronic communication—for bill payments and correspondence. When was the last time you wrote a letter?
With private-sector competition, a prolonged recession, and sales of first-class mail in decline since 2006, the agency’s woes have been well-publicized in recent years. “The Postal Service’s infrastructure expanded over many decades to handle ever-increasing volumes of mail for the country,” says USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan. Now, “we have too many buildings and a declining product.”
USPS currently leases 24,309 buildings and owns another 8,644. (The General Services Administration also owns some 300 buildings now used as postal facilities.) Of these, it has terminated 2,680 leases since 2006; and, since 2008, it has sold 111 buildings (as of June 20). Last year, the agency identified nearly 4,400 post office facilities that it plans to study for closure.
Unsurprisingly, with so many post offices qualifying as historic structures, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has taken a strong interest in the buildings in its annual “11 Most Endangered Places” list. “We’ve been tracking this for about two years, ever since the USPS announced closings,” says Christina Morris, a senior field officer for the National Trust in Chicago, where design studies are under way on the Old Chicago Main Post Office. “We understand USPS’s financial constraints, and we’d like to be a part of the solution by helping them define a process, and to make sure that process is clear, open, and transparent.”
The post office in Geneva, Ill., serves as a National Trust poster child. As one of the facilities that the USPS identified to study for possible closure, “there has been immense local interest in its fate,” Morris says. “City officials in Geneva call the post office the ‘community kitchen table’ because it’s such a pivotal meeting and gathering place in the historic downtown.”
Because many post office buildings are centrally located, often within downtown districts, and tend to feature large open spaces, their potential as adaptive use projects is enormous.
In Geneva, however, while two different developers expressed interest in purchasing, rehabbing, and reusing the post office, “both eventually gave up in frustration because they could not get timely or clear answers from USPS representatives. It was an unfortunate missed opportunity to keep the post office an active part of the downtown,” says Morris. “These structures can and should be reused to maintain a vital role in their towns. There is no social or economic benefit to the local community if these prominent post office buildings are sitting vacant and unmaintained.”
Randy Jackson agrees. As president of the Planning Center, a design, land, and community planning consulting firm based in Santa Ana, Calif., Jackson has been focused on bringing together cities in his region with the common goal of improving the economic performance and livability of underperforming commercial corridors. That’s why the sight of a large, underutilized postal distribution facility in Los Alamitos vexes him. “It’s just sitting there, surrounded by several acres and cyclone fencing,” he says.Jackson speculates that the agency, which has been
somewhat tight-lipped about its long-term plans, may pursue strategic leasing of facilities or innovative partnerships with the private sector. But he hopes that the USPS will also consider offering properties as what he calls “public benefit transfers” to cities, on a smaller par with the Department of Defense’s Defense Base Closure and Realignment Program. Of the USPS’s lease terminations and property sales to date, Jackson says, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
But the downsizing of USPS building stock may be a prolonged process, according to Brennan. “It’s not likely there will be any mass sales of postal facilities, especially since we own so few of the ones we occupy, it’s still a down real estate market, and all actions must make sense in terms of operations and logistics,” she says.
The USPS has, however, partnered with CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate service, to sell properties for the best market value possible. Because it is one of few federal agencies that can keep proceeds from real estate sales, putting its properties on the market may, paradoxically, help keep the USPS viable as it works to adapt to the 21st century.