Berkeley Wins Key Victory Over United States Postal Service
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 15, 2018
Contact: Karina Ioffee
Berkeley, California – U.S. District Judge William Alsup has ruled in favor of the City of Berkeley in a closely-watched challenge by the U. S. Postal Service to the City’s Civic Center Historic District Overlay Ordinance. Under the 2014 ordinance, if the Postal Service decides to sell the historically significant Berkeley Main Post Office, the building will be restricted to civic, educational, or non-profit uses and cannot be used in any way that would disrupt the character of Berkeley’s Civic Center Historic District.
“Historic preservation is a quintessential local matter,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the author of the Overlay Ordinance. “This decision confirms that local governments have wide latitude to protect vital historic resources without interference from the federal government.”
The Berkeley Main Post Office is one of a cluster of buildings in the City’s historic Civic Center District that was initially planned in 1899 and completed by 1950. For over 100 years, the Civic Center has been the heart of Berkeley’s civic and cultural life. In 1998, it was designated in the National Register of Historic Places as a “clearly defined civic center” and “cohesive ensemble” of buildings. The Main Post Office building is also listed on the National Register.
The dispute started in 2012 when the Postal Service, facing a financial crisis, declared its intent to sell the Post Office building to the highest bidder. Facing the loss of one of its most significant historic buildings, and the disruption of the character of the Civic Center, the City opposed the sale in court, but that lawsuit was dismissed. To protect the integrity of the historic Civic Center District and preserve the existing landmark buildings, the City of Berkeley adopted the Overlay in September 2014. Doing so limited the use of all buildings in the historic overlay, including the Post Office, to civic, nonprofit, cultural, and other similar uses.
The Postal Service argued that the Overlay Ordinance violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against the Postal Service and preventing the sale of the Post Office by significantly reducing its value. Now a federal court has concluded that Berkeley has the right to protect the Post Office building even if it somewhat reduces the amount the Postal Service can earn from a sale. Judge Alsup disposed of the claim that the Overlay prevented the sale of the Post Office based on the fact that the Post Office “continues to retain considerable value in the real estate market” despite the adoption of the Overlay.
“The City is not unsympathetic to the Postal Service’s budget challenges,” said Berkeley City Attorney Farimah Brown. “But the constitution does not preclude the City from exercising its traditional police powers to guard its historic resources.”