What is the United States Postal Service?
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a self-supporting, independent agency of the federal government that provides postal service to the U.S. According to its website, USPS “receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.” Although these activities generate billions of dollars per year, in recent years, USPS has faced budget challenges, and in response has undertaken an initiative to “create a more streamlined processing and distribution network that is intended to use fewer facilities to handle an existing and projected decline in national mail volumes.” (See a full explanation starting on p.21 of this 2014 report by the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.)
With use of USPS in decline, USPS is closing down USPS locations and selling buildings.
What types of properties does the USPS officially own and control?
The USPS owns a variety of mail-related facilities, including Post Offices, stations, and branches. The USPS publishes a list of the properties it owns by state on its website and you can see them on the map at NYCommons.
According to Management of Vacant Properties, a national 2015 USPS internal audit, the USPS does not have good information about vacant properties it owns or leases.
What happens with the USPS is a tenant instead of the Official Owner of a property?
Not all USPS locations are in properties that the USPS owns.
USPS also leases spaces that were not built specifically to house USPS locations from public and private owners. Public owners, like the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, official owner of the Bathgate post office location, have to follow their own rules for selling property to private buyers. The USPS publishes lists of the properties it leases by state on its website and you can see some of the NYC ones on the map at NYCommons (we included the ones that look and feel like government buildings; some of the leases are expiring soon!).
When USPS is renting subject to the terms of a lease from a private owner, and the landlord can potentially demand the closure of the space per the provisions of the lease, and without any public input.
For example, the former Astoria Station post office was sold to a private investor in 1952. In 1987, USPS signed a 10-year lease for the location; since 1997, USPS has been a month-to-month tenant at the location. In 2012, the heirs of the owner, who had passed away decided to sell to a developer who planned to build a large residential building on the site. To do that, they terminated the USPS lease and forced them to move. You can read details of the saga on Postlandia.
What rules apply when USPS sells or leases public land or buildings?
The USPS has a broad general power to “sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of property.” USPS regularly disposes of excess real property, as described in the U.S. Postal Service Facilities Guide to Real Property Acquisitions and Related Services.
The USPS Board of Governors directs and controls practices and policies concerning USPS (as described on the Board’s website). A USPS District Manager may propose the discontinuance of a USPS facility, and the responsible Headquarters Vice President or a designee must then review and decide on the merits of the proposal.
As of January 2018, the District Managers for New York City are:
Elvin Mercado (Queens and Brooklyn), 1050 Forbell St., Rm 2011, Brooklyn, NY 11256-9996, (718) 348-3991
Lorraine Castellano (Manhattan and Bronx), 421 8th Ave., Rm 3018, New York, NY 10199-9998, (212) 330-3600
When USPS plans to close or consolidate an active facility, federal law requires consideration of these four factors:
- the effect on the community served by the facility;
- the effect on USPS employees;
- the government policy that USPS “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining;” and
- the economic savings to USPS.
USPS may also consider anything else relevant to the specific situation. USPS must also comply with public notice requirements, as described more fully below.
The USPS offers its properties to prospective lessors or buyers in the following order:
- The federal General Services Agency
- Other federal agencies
- State government agencies
- County government agencies
- Municipal government agencies
- Private sector
Another law, requires all federal agencies to look for space in USPS properties when they need to add space to operate their programs. In other words, where possible, extra USPS space is supposed to go to another government agency rather than being leased or sold to a private entity.
What are the public notice requirements for USPS projects, and how can community members influence what happens?
When USPS is considering closing an existing retail Post Office, station, or branch, the law requires that USPS give the public 60 days notice and the opportunity to comment on the proposal.
After public comments are received, a final determination to close or consolidate a USPS-operated facility must be made in writing and must include findings covering the four factors listed above. The written determination must be made available to people served by the USPS-operated facility at least 60 days before the discontinuance takes effect.
Within the first 30 days after the written determination is made available, any person regularly served by a Post Office subject to discontinuance may appeal the decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission (“independent Federal agency that provides transparency and accountability of the USPS’s operations”). An appeal can be based on one of these three reasons:
- the decision to close the location was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law;
- the decision was made without observance of procedure required by law; or
- the decision is unsupported by substantial evidence on the record.
After an appeal is filed, the Commission then has 120 days to either affirm the USPS determination, or order that the entire matter be returned for further consideration. It cannot modify the determination of the USPS.
How does USPS protect historic buildings?
Federal law requires government agencies to follow certain steps before taking any action – including sale or lease – that would adversely affect a historic property. You can read about the rules for preserving historic buildings when government transfers property to a private owner.
USPS makes its own determination of whether its property is historic using internal USPS documents, the National Register of Historic Places, the National Archives and other sources. If the post office you are interested in protecting has historic significance, read out how to get it on one of these lists. Although not required by the regulations, for some properties, the USPS can hire a contractor to conduct further investigation into historic significance; you and your elected advocates can encourage them to do this.
Once USPS determines that the building is historic, it will have to follow the Section 106 Review consultation process (summarized for when government transfers property to a private owner). At the end of the consultation, the USPS will decide whether the sale of the building will have an “adverse effect” on the historical property or not. It must then notify the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation of the adverse effect finding.
If there is an adverse effect finding, USPS can enter into an agreement with the New York State Historic Preservation Office and any other appropriate consulting parties. Any organization for which the property is important can be a consulting party and part of the agreement, including the Advisory Council and local groups. The agreement will require that protective covenants or a property easement is included as a legal requirement of the sale or transfer to ensure protection of the property after it is transferred. For example, when USPS sold the building at 558 Grand Concourse in the Bronx, the Agreement required a covenant to be placed on the property and held jointly by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission & New York Landmarks Conservancy. USPS now leases a small portion of the building for its operation and a development team is repurposing the rest as retail, office space and a restaurant.
For more information
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Preserving Historic Post Office: A Report to Congress (2014).
U.S. Postal Service Facilities Guide to Real Property Acquisitions and Related Services , Handbook RE-1 (2015).
U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General, Management of Vacant Properties Audit Report (Nov. 6, 2015).
Lawrence I. Josephs, ON BUYING AND OWNING A POST OFFICE, NY Times (July 5, 1981).
Postlandia, Astoria Story: Queens Post Office Reopens After Two-Year Absence, (June 9, 2014).