USPS Puts Bronx General Post Office Up for Sale

USPS ignores pleas not to sell iconic building

By Brianna McGurran

Published in the Mott Haven Herald, Feb. 12, 2014

The historic General Post Office on E. 149th St. and Grand Concourse is now officially for sale.
Brianna McGurran/Mott Haven Herald

Over the objections of neighbors, local politicians and conservationists, one of the Bronx’s most beloved buildings – the historic General Post Office on E. 149th St. and Grand Concourse – is now officially for sale.The U.S. Postal Service is selling post offices across the country to make up for a drop in mail volume and to fund retired postal workers’ benefits. Real estate experts say a new use for the building could bring in more revenue for the city.

But locals are worried about how the sale of this landmarked property – known for its 1930s murals by artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson – will affect mail services, and politicians and activists are mobilizing to make sure the building stays in the public domain.

Harvey Outlaw, 72, who worked in the post office for 43 years until he retired in 2009, said the building should not only stay open, it should start processing mail again. The postal service closed the building’s processing plant in 2011, and all Bronx mail is now distributed from Manhattan.

“What is wrong with this location right here?” said Outlaw.

“It would be much faster to process the mail here and get it out to the Bronx stations,” he said. “I walked in and out of this building for 43 years. If there’s an expert, I’ve got to be close to it.”

CB Richard Ellis, the real-estate firm the USPS chose to negotiate the sale of the post office, is in the beginning stages of soliciting bids on the property, postal service spokeswoman Connie Chirichello wrote in an email.

“Any prospective buyers continue to have the opportunity to respond to the ‘call to offers’ process and all offers will be entertained,” she explained.

When the sale goes through, retail and post office box services will be relocated to a smaller space nearby, she said.

With more and more people turning to email to communicate, the U.S. Postal Service is now faced with a $20 billion budget gap. Letter volume has shrunk more than 50 percent in the past 10 years, said Chirichello.

But Rep. José E. Serrano, who has represented the South Bronx in Congress since 1990, said he thinks there is still a demand for postal services in the area. He said he has been a Bronx General Post Office customer for 40 years.

“When the post office was in its full force and you went there on a Saturday morning, for instance, when I used to go, the argument was just the opposite, that the line was too long,” he said.

“It’s an institution in our community,” Serrano said. “Not only the services they provide, but the building itself.”

The post office was built in 1937 and its exterior was designated a New York City landmark in 1976. Under the auspices of the New Deal Works Progress Administration, Shahn and Bryson created 13 large murals for the lobby in 1939 that depict miners, farmers, engineers and steelworkers. The lobby was landmarked in December.

The USPS will work with the building’s buyer to preserve the murals and exterior, said spokeswoman Connie Chirichello.

Worries over conserving the lobby and façade aside, some experts say the sale could be a boon for the area.

“There’s no inherent reason why the community should be concerned,” said John Goering, a real estate and public affairs professor at Baruch College.

The USPS, a federal government entity, doesn’t pay taxes on the building, he explained, and a new commercial or residential use would bring in more revenue for the city.

The market value of the 170,000-square-foot building is almost $15 million, according to city records. The taxable value is almost $7 million, which could change depending on the new use of the property.

Based on the current figures, the building could bring in more than $600,000 in property tax revenue in 2014, according to Ana Champeny, an analyst at the city’s Independent Budget Office.

But since new taxes on the property will go into the city and state’s general funds, Serrano said they won’t necessarily benefit the South Bronx.

“History shows that New York in general and the Bronx in particular don’t always get back every tax dollar they put in,” he said.

Serrano has been a vocal opponent of the proposed sale. Last month he added a provision to the federal appropriations bill suggesting that the postal service halt the sale of all historic post offices until the U.S. Inspector General issues a report, expected in March, on whether the sales process is in compliance with federal guidelines.

Karmen Michael, 35, lives in Morrisania and is taking matters into his own hands. He said he plans to raise funds online to keep the building a working post office.

“Even if we only get a few donations, it’s still the will of the people,” he said. “I’m just believing that David can defeat Goliath.”