Bronx Post Office Sold to Developer

Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Mural at the Bronx Post Office

Ben Shahn Mural at the Bronx Post Office
“America at Work” is one of thirteen murals in the Bronx post office

Despite vigorous protest by the public and public officials, the Bronx General Post Office has been sold. Valued at $14 million, the building reportedly was sold to Korean developer Young Woo & Associates for an undisclosed sum. The U.S. Postal Service has not made an official announcement about the sale and has declined to provide details.

“The United States Postal Service has sold one of the Bronx’s most important community and historic treasures in a completely irresponsible manner,” Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano said. “The USPS has disregarded the voices of the Bronx community, elected officials, historic preservationists, and their own employees—all of whom opposed this process and this sale.”

In 2013 the Postal Service announced its intention to sell the massive Bronx Post Office in order to “right-size our retail operation into smaller leased space,” according to Joseph Mulvey, a real estate specialist for the Postal Service.

The Bronx General Post Office

The Bronx General Post Office
Built in 1935, the Bronx post office is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City

The four-story Moderne Bronx Post Office was built in 1935 as part of a Treasury Department program to employ out-of-work architects, artisans, and artists. It is one of more than a thousand post offices constructed during FDR’s presidency. At 175,000 square-feet, it is the largest of twenty-nine Depression-era post offices in New York City.

Two sculptures by Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis adorn the outside of the massive building. The lobby contains thirteen murals, entitled “America at Work, painted in 1937 by American artists Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson. Shahn (1898-1969), a prolific artist, is known for his works of social realism. His works appear in several government buildings in Washington, D.C. and are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York.

The Postal Service has faced severe criticism of its disposal of its historic properties, many of which contain artworks intended for the public that paid for them. Last year the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the lobby of the Bronx Post Office and its murals a historic landmark to give them some protection in the event of a sale.

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office

Exterior of the Bronx Post Office
Charles Rudy and Henry Kreis sculptures decorate the landmark building

The U.S. Postal Service receives no public funds, yet in a push to privatize the agency, Republicans in Congress enacted legislation in 2006 requiring the U.S. Postal Service to prepay 75-years of benefits to postal workers within ten years. Without that $5.6 billion prepayment, the USPS would have made a profit of over $600 million last year.

Postal officials have insisted that they must sell thousands of post offices in order to fix the cash-strapped agency. Local opposition to the sale of many post offices led Congress to appoint the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to look into the matter. In April 2014 the Council recommended  that the Postal Service refrains from selling historic post offices until it improves its program and procedures.

The international real estate firm CBRE has the exclusive contract to sell “surplus” post office properties. Until recently, the chairman of the board of CBRE was Richard Blum, the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Blum stepped down as chairman in May, but continues to be a major stockholder. The USPS Inspector General is looking into whether CBRE may be selling postal facilities to its partners at below-market prices at the Postal Service’s expense. Young Woo & Associates, the Korean developer that purchased the Bronx Post Office has done several deals with CBRE. According to Save the Post Office, CBRE CEO Robert Sulentic also serves on the board of directors of Staples, where a pilot program has been underway to see if the Postal Service could cut costs by outsourcing retail services to big box stores.

“It’s not clear why the Postal Service is so reluctant to share information about the sale of the Bronx Post Office, what it sold for, what the plans are, or where the postal retail operation is relocating,” says NYU professor Steve Hutkins, whose Save the Post Office http://www.savethepostoffice.com/search website has been bird-dogging the sell off of the nation’s post offices. Save the Post Office, among the many organizations objecting to the sale. In April, a coalition of elected officials that included New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer urged that the sale be put on hold. Congressman José Serrano introduced legislation to halt the sales until the Postal Service implements the ACHP recommendations. Hundreds of concerned citizens and postal workers turned out at a public hearing to oppose the sale.

Because the USPS will divulge nothing about the sale of its public property, its fate and that of its great murals remains unclear.

Report Tells Congress to Halt Post Office Sell Off

Post Office Protest
Protestors at historic post office in Berkeley, California
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Privatizing the postal system—a declared goal of the Republican Party — has led to the sale of hundreds of historic post offices, over 1,100 of which were built under the New Deal. Public opposition to the scheme has been growing nationwide, with the Living New Deal playing a significant role.

In response to the outcry, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) has issued a report to Congress expressing “significant concerns” about the lack of transparency and accountability by which the USPS is transferring public property to private ownership.

The Council’s recommendations include a moratorium on the sale of historic post offices around the country and greater protection for the New Deal artworks ornamenting many of the 1930s post offices that, the report notes, “captured the American scene and transformed the post office into a truly democratic art gallery.”

A federal lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate halted the sale of the post office in Stamford Connecticut, sold to a developer who planned to tear part of it down and put up luxury apartments.

Stamford, Conneticut Post Office
A federal lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate halted the sale of the post office in Stamford Connecticut, sold to a developer who planned to tear part of it down and put up luxury apartments.
Photo Credit: Save the Post Office

CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate company, has an exclusive contract to sell USPS properties, valued at around $105 billion.  A recent expose found that CBRE is largely owned by Richard Blum, husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein and has led to several Inspector Generals’ investigations.

Widespread citizen action to preserve the postal system includes a landmark lawsuit brought by the National Post Office Collaborate in Berkeley, California that blocked the sale of the historic post office in Stamford, Connecticut.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Berkeley has become the epicenter of opposition to the sell off.

The ACHP is comprised of presidential appointees, but as its name implies, is merely advisory.  It remains to be seen whether its prestige will alter the rouge course of the USPS.

Communities Fight to Save U.S. Post Offices and New Deal Art

Coast to coast, from the Bronx and Chelsea in New York City to Venice, La Jolla, Ukiah, Redlands, and Berkeley in California, the Postal Service has decided that it will sell historic downtown post offices without looking at alternatives.

Hundreds of post offices are up for sale or lease, and the list is growing. Of the 56 U.S. post office buildings currently for sale, six are on the National Register of Historic Places and more may be eligible.

The Berkeley-based National Post Office Collaborate has filed suit in federal court to stop the sale of the Renaissance-style Stamford, Connecticut, Post Office and is prepared to do the same for Berkeley and La Jolla, California and the monumental post office in the Bronx, renowned for its thirteen murals by New Deal artist Ben Shahn.

Stamford Post Office, Courtesy Save the Post Office
Stamford, Connecticut’s Renaissance-style post office may be sold and largely demolished for luxury condos.

After months of public protest and formal appeals by the city, on July 18 Postal Service officials announced that, despite near-unanimous community opposition, it would sell Berkeley, California’s historic post office, citing “dire financial circumstances facing the Postal Service.”

The announcement provoked a month-long encampment in downtown Berkeley to defend the post office and the New Deal artworks it contains.

Berkeley Planning Commissioners voted unanimously on a measure restricting the use of historic buildings in the civic center, including the post office, to community-serving purposes. The California State Legislature passed a measure urging the U.S. Congress to stop the sale of historic post offices and undo the constraints that Congress imposed in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-pay 75-years of health benefits for Postal Service employees—part of the conservative agenda to privatize the U.S. Postal Service by pushing it into bankruptcy.

Berkeley Post Office Protest
Slated for sale: Downtown Post Office, Berkeley, California

Two weeks ago, the Downtown Berkeley Post Office was listed for sale. CBRE holds an exclusive contract with the U.S. Postal Service to sell and lease the post office properties, valued at billions of dollars. The USPS-CBRE relationship is the subject of an explosive exposè by investigative reporter Peter Byrne that found that CBRE — chaired and largely owned by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum — has consistently sold valuable public properties to its associates at prices well below market rates.

The Collaborate is urging an investigation by the USPS Office of Inspector General David Williams. Contributions to defray substantial legal expenses can be made to NPOC, PO Box 1234, Berkeley, CA 94701.