Santa Monica Lookout
City Council Approves Preservation Covenant for Historic Post Office Building
By Jason Islas
August 29, 2013 -- The City Council voted 5-to-1 Tuesday in favor of a covenant it hopes will preserve the 75-year-old Downtown Santa Monica Post Office building, which the US Postal Service has already put up for sale.
The covenant -- which will be attached to the deed -- assures that anyone who buys the former post office from the Federal agency won't be able to make substantive changes to the building, a relic of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), without approval from the City Council.
Tuesday's decision also paves the way for the US Postal Service to sell the valuable piece of real estate since Federal law requires the agency to include a preservation clause when it sells any of its historic properties.
“We want to do everything we can to try and protect the building,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
While the building at Fifth Street and Arizona Avenue is still owned the Federal agency, Santa Monica cannot designate it a landmark under its local statutes.
Instead, the City will have to wait for the building to change hands and, Moutrie said, the covenant would help assure that the building was preserved in the interim.
Only Mayor Pam O'Connor dissented, arguing that the covenant process, since it is out of step with how Santa Monica preserves its other historical buildings, could prove complicated in the future.
“This is definitely a historic building but this is not the way to go about preserving it,” she said.
As it stands, the City will be responsible for enforcing the covenant, which the Postal Service drafted with detailed input from Santa Monica's Landmarks Commission.
And once the building is sold, the Landmarks Commission could designate the building a local landmark, Postal Service officials said.
Preservation advocates may not have to wait long for the building to change hands.
It's officially on the market and CBRE, the Postal Service's real estate broker, has already placed a for-sale sign on the property.
The building, which the Postal Service shuttered at the end of June, is listed online at uspspropertiesforsale.com along with 40 other buildings and seven parcels, though CBRE hasn't listed an asking price.
Santa Monica's post office, which was relocated to a refurbished mail sorting station at Olympic Boulevard and Seventh Street, is only the most recent casualty in the Postal Service's ongoing battle to end its budget woes.
Last year, the Federal agency defaulted on a $10 billion payment after a 2006 law passed by Congress mandated that the USPS prepay 75 years worth of employee pensions over 10 years.
By closing Santa Monica's post office, the Postal Service hopes to save $3 million in the next decade in addition to the money made from its sale. USPS officials have refused to disclose what they estimate that figure could be, however.
The covenant will severely restrict what the building's next owner can do with the property, however, since it preserves much of the building's exterior and the original hanging light fixtures, the wooden walls and ceilings, metal staircase rails and tall tables inside.
One local developer, John Warfel with Metropolitan Pacific Capital (MPC), has expressed interest in buying the building, especially since his firm is in the running for to design a major project on a two and a half acre piece of City property right across the street. (“Local Developer Poised to Reshape Downtown Santa Monica,” August 21)
While Warfel has not purchased the property, he has suggested turning the building into a small food market similar to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace.
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