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SOS USPS: Post Office Buildings Going for Sale

Eugene Post Office for SaleEugene Post Office for Sale

Photo Taken 3/18/2010 Built in 1938

When the Federal government determines buildings are no longer useful, they put them up for auction through the GSA. Other Federal agencies, nonprofits and educational uses are supposed to get first dibs, but if nobody wants it, the GSA does have a whole department to support its “good neighbor” policy by facilitating local planning efforts to  reuse federal buildings. Whether or not they’re first consulted in disposing of Federal buildings, or if they wait to act only when the local community or citizens approach them, is something I will have to investigate further. As I wrote in a previous post, I would love to see the thousands of soon-to-be-vacant post offices turned into new public facilities rather than just all be turned into restaurants, sit empty, or fall to wrecking balls. In the case of the Eugene Post Office (seen here,) a property in seemingly exquisite condition and on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in a neighborhood of older buildings put to new commercial uses, I think the worst case scenario is off the table. However, I doubt this will be the fortune of all the closing post facilities.

Now, the GSA website has up a list of success stories, by state, of successful property donations. Oregon’s case example was the provision of an emergency school when the one in the town of Sheridan burnt down. I found this a bit short and pretty lame–maybe the GSA needs a publicist, or maybe despite their desire to find local partners to take these buildings, most federal buildings/infrastructure just end up in the marketplace.  It leaves me to wonder if there is going to be a thoughtful process of divesting the U.S. Post Office of its infrastructure, or if in the end it will be completely ad hoc. In this case, I think opportunities are going to be missed because of the lack of any federal leadership. Localities–not all but many–will most likely scrap to keep their particular offices open for as long as possible, and then will be completely apathetic as to the final outcome for the post offices.

Wallis-Annenberg Center...Courtesy ArchDaily

Some of our wealthier places, as here in Beverly Hills, might be able to not only secure funding but recreate the historic building into something noteworthy for the community. However, these will most likely be the exception to the rule. Also, if the thought is that these structures should be put to purposes of economic revitalization in depressed regions, I believe the default option of making new community theaters, performing arts places, and the like is sort of played out, or at least overhyped. Building new cultural and arts institutions makes sense for many medium to large metro-areas that are most likely starved for these sorts of local opportunities, but I think the strategy of just building these edifices in the hopes of creating bohemian clusters is oversold to many places that it isn’t likely to take. Also, much like the arguments made in behalf of public funding for sports stadiums and arenas in the name of economic development, the idea that these spaces will automatically create spillovers for downtowns does not comport with reality. But this is clearly a topic for another post.

Back to the subject of how the GSA is most likely to dispose of hundreds, and thousands, often uniquely designed, federal post office buildings in the near to medium term. There is, of course (as usual), an argument to be made that leaving things up to local markets to decide the fate of these buildings is the finest, truest method for determining the maximum utility these structures will have for society. I’m divided in my opinion because while I would prefer localities to take the lead (they will best know optimum use and needs) many places lack the sort of informed citizen engagement necessary. In addition, I believe these post offices are going to come up onto the market without much far warning, and as a surprise to local historic preservation or booster groups. Furthermore, thinking from a good government perspective, I would question whether other agencies have thought creatively about how they could take advantage of these thousands of retailing centers strategically located nationwide. It’s understandably not a priority at this time, and expansion has costs. I think it would be desirable for the GSA to analyze each property its disposing, and then shop the building, recommending uses, to targeted agencies and local actors.

For instance, given the GSA’s other mission to provide child care centers, and given the open floor plans post office mail sorting rooms offer, a systematic approach to convert mail rooms to Head Start centers , might be an option. Another might be to help close the digital divide that still persists by the creation of library branches dedicated solely to access to computers, the internet, and multimedia. Other community “3rd place” options would vary greatly by building and location, but include dedicated voting centers (no more closing school early to turn the gym into voting location), fitness centers, clinics, etc. As is the case with the Eugene, Oregon Art Deco structure, Post Offices were designed to grandly express the civic virtues of our republic with Greek temple like entrances. Even with their musty post office odors, I believe the foyers and entrances of these buildings is inspirational and instructional, and we must aspire to fill them with programs and frequent uses that befit their design and influence future generations. These future functions might be private and commercial, but besides the niche bistro I doubt it. I prefer a hold on the sale of former USPS buildings, a thorough and systematic examination of these buildings for continued public use, and if it could be managed, funding for their retrofits and conversion. I photographed the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood and will soon be posting some thoughts about the structures situation to its environs, and potential future use.

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How do you feel that Hormel thinks You Just Ain’t Right?

So, the processed meat market is now reflexively fighting against contemporary trends in landscape architecture, as part of a larger battle to carve out a counter-revolution on behalf of all synthetic lifestyle elements everywhere. Unexpected quarter for a critique on suburban landscaping I must admit.

Can’t really blame them; if I was a thoroughly over-processed piece of pork fat I’d be angry at nudists/urban agriculturist/hippie/yuppie/bohemian poseurs with their non-native grasses, too. I mean, I don’t truly care, it’s good marketing. They don’t want to alienate the “pry the bologna from my dead, hock-sized fingers” crowd by their removing artificial preservatives from your Hormel product.

Still, what’s it mean for the general direction of things when a food corporation tries to maintain a distance from “natural” ingredients by lumping native grass specie lawns with artiste nudists? Is any alternative form of front yard landscaping destined to be faddish scarcity, adopted by only a marginal few? Is the suburban lawn, and by extension millions of acres of American landscape (you know, just the inhabited portions), doomed for all time to consist of shortly trimmed kentucky blue-grass fed a diet of weed killer and petroleum based fertilizer?

US Postal Service’s Infrastructure: How can we maintain and expand our public realm?

I don’t want to push post offices and mail services straight out the door yet, but things are not looking good. Even if it is decades before the US post service becomes obsolete or replaced by private carriers, the possibility is definitely in sight and the volume of mail is trending downward. How many Federally-owned, physical operations can you name that exist and impact so many communities so directly? Post offices and distribution centers are, of course, everywhere occupying some of the most centralized urban locations. “With 32,000 post offices throughout the country, USPS has more retail locations than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Walgreens combined…[but] the average foot traffic for a post office is about one tenth of that at Walgreens — a mere 600 weekly customers.” It isn’t too soon to start planning for the reuse of so much high quality space.

This marks a great opportunity to maintain and expand the public realm.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of simply beautiful post office facades in this nation, often made with lovingly crafted marble or other fancily carved stones. Many are graced with individualized, artistic finishes to their doors or lighting fixtures, the kind of touch that is unthinkably expensive today. Like firehouses, water stations, or old schoolhouses, post office architecture can often serve as points of town identity. As they slowly spend more and more time closed for business, or even shuttered for good, we should think about rescuing them as public “3rd place” in the same way libraries have become community focal points. Many predicted the demise of the public library in the digital information age, but libraries have reinvented themselves (some drastically so as “urban mediaspace”, a concept I’m fond of) and they have never been more essential to educating, providing support services, and generating social capital.

We could, and probably should, allow many to become little cafes and restaurants, but even better is to reinvent them as grand, new public infrastructure ala the Moynihan Station project has done with the Farley Post Office.

I invite people to please brain storm more ways in which we can save and reuse post office and their support buildings as “3rd places” and provide links to any other examples of what has already been done.