By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. September 29, 2015
Santa Monica’s iconic landmark post office at 5th and Arizona is in private hands, courtesy of the U.S. Congress, which unnecessarily placed the United States Postal Service (USPS) in untenable financial duress when it approved the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006.
Prior to the PAEA, the USPS operated under a pay-as-you-go model for retiree health care funding. The PAEA required the USPS to pre-fund its benefit obligations or the next 75 years, unique among all federal agencies (as well as U.S. corporations) – and to do so within ten years. That led to a mass sell-off of public assets, including our local beloved Art Deco Moderne architecture PWA (Public Works Administration) 1930s-era post office, to fund this manufactured financial liability.
In anticipation of the Post Office falling into private ownership, the City entered into a preservation covenant with the postal service in August 2013 to protect the property’s historic significance. The covenant prohibits the purchaser of the property, as well as all future owners of the property, from “undertaking any construction, alteration or rehabilitation on the property that would affect the historic features of the property without first seeking review and approval from the certified local government,” which in our case means the Landmarks Commission and the City Council upon appeal. Once the property was sold, the Landmarks Commission landmarked the structure and parcel in March 2014 (which was not legally possible while the building was still federal property.)
Which brings us to the present. On Sept. 17, the new owners – Skydance Productions, a production company based out of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood – came to the Landmarks Commission seeking a Certificate of Appropriateness for their proposed alterations. They initially proposed an eight-foot high fence for “security” around the exterior of the parcel, abutting the public sidewalk along 5th Street and along Arizona Avenue. After consultations with City Staff, the applicants lowered their proposal to six and half feet, which was what was considered by the Commission.
To justify the fence, the applicant and their legal representative said famous people frequenting the premises would have to fend off paparazzi, and cited a recent experience of actress Jennifer Lawrence at the Chevron at 5th and Wilshire posted on YouTube as an example. They also argued the building still said “United States Post Office” on its historic front façade, which would inevitably attract people.
And they didn’t know this when they purchased it? Or is this a camel’s nose under the tent?
Does that mean if famous people didn’t come there we wouldn’t have this fence proposal around our architectural and cultural heritage?
Are we basing architectural decisions about landmark structures, on the economic and social class of the users?
In seeking the preservation covenant, did we seek to preserve the building, or the community’s connection to the building?
How connected can the community be, when there is a fence well above the average height of a person, separating us from such an important part of our history and heritage?
Many Landmarks Commissioners voiced skepticism of the high fence proposal. Smartly, the Commission unanimously approved the staff recommendation to continue the item: “to allow the applicant to work with staff to identify other means of providing the necessary security that the property owner seeks while maintaining the building’s historic physical and visual spatial relationship within the Downtown.”
When the item returns to the Commission, it will also be important to consider the context. Because what is appropriate has a context. That is why not just the post office, but the entire parcel was landmarked.
Historically, the post office has been surrounded by an open-air plaza, open to the public. Soon, the new Plaza at Santa Monica project across Arizona will be considered by the City Council. If approved in some form, it’s designed to attract a large number of pedestrians along Arizona, right across the street from the post office.
In anyone’s idea of basic good urban design, there would be a pedestrian-friendly synergy between both sides of Arizona, and a clear open space connection to the landmarked post office building.
That is what we clearly would have already had, if those who purchased the land did so to go into a business designed to invite people in. One local developer proposed a food market similar to San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, which would have given the public access to the post office’s historic lobby, and could have been planned in conjunction with the Plaza at Santa Monica project across the street. Instead, the USPS went for top dollar to satisfy the austerity of the PAEA, and more inclusive public uses got outbid.
The PAEA was approved in 2006 by a voice vote in both houses, so there is no record of who actually voted for it. Whether implicit, stealth or unanticipated, the PAEA’s effect has been to weaken the U.S. Postal Service, create new revenues and profits for its commercial competitors, and weaken one of the largest remaining public employee labor unions.
Now we have this curious local situation where we’re asked to also privatize our spatial relationship to our historic landmark – and upon what basis?
The fence proposal is tone deaf to the symbolism of the private capturing of public assets. It’s rational to protect the few from the many would fence off from the people the results of a historic public works program that helped get us out of the Great Depression.
There is a point at which businesses seeking to locate in Santa Monica need to fit with our community vision – or be out of place. Alternatively, if special accommodations for such businesses cause us to compromise who we are, can we deem them appropriate?
Congress can weaken the USPS. The USPS can sell our post office. But because of the local preservation covenant so many in this community worked so hard for, we still have a say on how appropriate future alterations to the post office and its surrounding parcel are.
The matter is expected to come back to the Landmarks Commission sometime in October or November. There is still a chance for Santa Monica values to apply.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein
‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.