Santa Monica Lookout
Crowded Field Vies for Santa Monica's Historic Post Office Building
By Jason Islas
September 18, 2013 -- Hollywood producer David Ellison has begun eyeing the New Deal-era building, once home to Downtown Santa Monica's post office, as a potential expansion to his booming business.
But with a crowded field vying for the historic 75-year-old building located Fifth Street and Arizona Avenue -- prime real estate in the bayside city's core -- it's much too early to tell who may end up winning the biding war, said CBRE realtor Blake Mirkin.
“There is a variety of people interested in the building,” Mirkin told The Lookout Tuesday. He added that he had only heard about Ellison's interest Monday.
Variety Magazine reported that the up-and-coming Hollywood producer was looking for new space to expand his company, Skydance Productions, which is currently involved in the latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise.
Mirkin said it was “terrific” that the 30-year-old Ellison showed an interest in the property. Still, Lee Polster of Coldwell Banker Commercial, a representative of Ellison, declined a request for comment Tuesday.
The property, which closed to the public in June, has been listed at uspspropertiesforsale.com without an asking price since August and there's no indication that Mirkin is near to brokering a deal.
“We're still in the marketing process,” said Mirkin. “Everyone's interested in it," but he declined to specify who exactly was included in that group.
Local developer John Warfel, principal of Metropolitan Pacific Capital (MPC), has also shown interest in the building. Warfel teamed with world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas in a bid to develop two-and-a-half acres of City-owned land directly across the street from the post office building.
While City staff recommended MPC's proposal for the City-owned parcel over two other competing proposals, the City Council voted to have MPC tweak its project for a runoff against a proposal submitted by developer Related Companies. ("Local Developer Poised to Reshape Downtown Santa Monica," August 21)
Regardless of who ends up buying the building, constructed in 1938 as a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, it comes with strings attached, said Mirkin.
“All buyers have to realize that it's a historical building,” he said. “They will be required to sign a covenant to agree to preserve the building.”
That covenant, which the City Council signed off on in August, is attached to the deed and assures that no major alterations can be made to the building's exterior -- and some of the original interior features -- without explicit permission from the Council. ("City Council Approves Preservation Covenant for Historic Post Office Building," August 29)
Since the City lost the battle to keep the post office open last summer, it opted to be a consulting partner to the US Postal Service as it drafted the covenant, a move celebrated by preservationists in part because the Federal building could not be designated a local landmark while it was still owned by the Postal Service.
Helping to draft a strong covenant was the City's best chance of preserving the building, said Santa Monica Conservancy President Carol Lemlein.
“The important thing was to get the covenant very well defined,” she said. “We were very pleased how all that worked out.”
The USPS opted to shutter the building last summer as part of a general strategy to help offset the Federal agency's mounting backlog of payments that began after a 2006 Congressional law required it to prepay employee pensions 75 years in advance over a 10-year period.
Closing the Downtown Santa Monica post office, Postal Service officials estimate, will save the agency roughly $3 million over the next 10 years in addition to whatever the property sells for.
If Ellison does buy the property, he will be following in the footsteps of Joel Silver, another film producer who bought Venice's WPA post office building after the Postal Service closed it in 2012.
Then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa celebrated Silver's plan to restore the building, including a 1941 mural that depicts Venice's founding.
Even though the building will be used as private office space, Silver has also agreed to make the mural available to the public upon request.
Whether or not the lobby of Santa Monica's post office will still be accessible after it is sold is another story.
With no historic art featured in the Art Deco-style, wood-lined lobby, there isn't as strong a case to be made to keep the lobby open to the public.
“Ideally, it would be used for a restaurant or something where it was generally open to the public,” Lemlein said.
But she's still optimistic.
“As long as we're able to work out some opportunities where we could open (the lobby) up to the public,” she said, “I don't see that as hugely problematic.”
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