A line of people wait for service at the post office on Fifth Street on Tuesday. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
DOWNTOWN — U.S. Postal Service officials confirmed Tuesday that the Downtown post office will close this summer, even as city officials struggle to have a say in the future of the historic property.
The Postal Service is preparing to put the New Deal-era building on the open market, and has already begun making improvements to the postal annex on Seventh Street, which will take over as the main customer service location for Downtown after the Fifth Street post office closes, said Richard Maher, a spokesperson for the Postal Service.
The sale is part of a nationwide effort to raise cash to cover a $25 billion hole in the mail service’s finances that has accumulated over the last five years as people steer clear of “snail mail” and pension and healthcare costs rise for postal employees.
The agency also needs to find an entity or organization to keep an eye on the building after the sale to ensure that the historic aspects are protected, also called a “covenant holder.”
As of now, that can’t be Santa Monica, Maher said, because the local municipal code prevents City Hall from entering a voluntary covenant agreement with a private owner until the property is landmarked.
That creates a catch-22.
The post office has languished on the Landmarks Commissions discussion list for months, with city officials holding that the commission could not take action on the matter until the building was no longer property of the federal government.
Although Deputy City Attorney Heidi von Tongeln confirmed that the Landmarks Commission would be able to formally discuss the post office property for the first time at its April meeting, it’s unclear what will come out of that as the government believes that Santa Monica cannot landmark the property if it does not apply for the status.
A covenant holder will have to be identified before the sale, and the Postal Service hasn’t decided if it wants to make that transition smoother by putting in for a local landmark designation, Maher said.
“The Postal Service has not decided which process it’s going to pursue,” Maher said. “We will evaluate all options as we go forward. We will secure a covenant holder, but we don’t know who that is.”
As of last week, the City Attorney’s Office had not received any information from the Postal Service about City Hall’s ability to be a covenant holder, von Tongeln said.
Carol Lemlein, of the Santa Monica Conservancy, doesn’t believe there’s any reason that City Hall cannot move forward with a designation. She points to cities like Glendale and Southgate, which have already bestowed landmark status on their post offices despite federal government ownership.
The city of Los Angeles never went down that road when it took on the role of covenant holder for the Post Office in Venice, said Ken Bernstein manager of L.A.’s Office of Historic Resources.
That building was bought late last year by producer Joel Silver — responsible for a number of popular films including the “Matrix,” “V for Vendetta” and “Sherlock Holmes” — and city officials stepped in to watch over the historic property.
“We did agree to step in and play what we hope will be a constructive and helpful role in adaptive reuse by overseeing a covenant that requires all permits and requests for alteration be reviewed by the Office of Historic Resources,” Bernstein said.
The office treated it similar to a landmark designation, although federal government ownership preempted it from becoming an L.A. landmark itself, he said.
Struggles with the Postal Service began last year when the federal agency announced that Santa Monica was one of a multitude of offices across the country that would lose a location as part of its belt tightening.
By moving to the Seventh Street annex location, which abuts Interstate 10, the Postal Service will save over $360,000 per year.
Residents and City Hall protested the move, arguing that the location was more difficult to access, particularly with the coming Exposition Light Rail Line which will bifurcate the city along Colorado Avenue.
The Postal Service denied City Hall’s appeal of its decision in October.