Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Consolidating in Saint Paul

Sometimes you just know: this downtown ain't big enough for the two of us. At least according to USPS.

It's been known for some time that the Postal Service is eager to sell its huge Main Post Office in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. This implies a relocation somewhere nearby. So mapping my postal tourism options while in the area for a wedding last fall, I knew I had to see that as well as Saint Paul's Uptown Station post office, "just" 0.7 miles away.

A week ago it was reported that the Main Post Office is to relocate mid-February to a site about exactly halfway between the old Main Post Office and the Uptown Station. That reeked of consolidation plans to me, and indeed today it was announced that the Uptown Station post office will close March 23.

Here's a map of the situation:
Saint Paul Downtown Postal Changes

It's a discontinuance that USPS will not count as such. What can you do? Here are some pictures:

Saint Paul's [present] Main Post Office was constructed during the Great Depression (1934) and housed Saint Paul's P&DC, whose operations are currently conducted at a site in outlying Eagan. What more can one say, but look at it:
Depression-built Saint Paul post office

The Uptown Station post office is located in the Hamm Building, an astounding 1915 work of architecture for which a picture really is worth a thousand words:
Hamm Building, Saint Paul

The lobby is exquisite:
Hamm Building, Saint Paul

To the left on the first floor, the U.S. Postal Service has paid a mere $25,900 a year to provide retail access at a second site in a growing urban core:
Saint Paul: Uptown Station (Hamm Building) post office

I'm glad I got to visit these sites as active post offices while I could. At least downtown Saint Paul's still big enough for the two of these guys, right?:
'Peanuts' sculpture; downtown Saint Paul

Saturday, January 19, 2013

USPS's Inaccurate Annual Compliance Data: CPUs

The U.S. Postal Service provides to the Postal Regulatory Commission data regarding all parts of its operations. While there are lots of fascinating tidbits all around, my primary interest as the 'postal tourist' involves information regarding USPS's physical infrastructure. To me this includes Post Offices, classified stations and branches, carrier annexes, and mail processing facilities. I also track contract postal units (CPUs) which, even though they are not staffed by postal employees, are the closest "Alternative Access" channel USPS possesses to formal post offices. CPUs, ideally, supplement USPS's 'formal' network. Tracking them enables greater understanding of access to postal services in a community, and so it is important that accurate information be made available to the public for further analysis.

A PRC Chairman's Information Request requested that USPS provide a list of post offices suspensions, offices formally closed, data regarding all collection boxes in the country(!), identification of all Contract Postal Units (including CPOs, a subset of CPU), and identification of all active Village Post Offices. On January 17, 2013 USPS responded to each of these requests.

This is the Chairman's request (see link above):
Please provide an Excel spreadsheet including Office Name (or other appropriate identifier), Unit Type (Community Post Office (CPO) or Contract Postal Unit (CPU)), Location (City and State), and 5-digit ZIP Code for the following:
a. CPUs and CPOs in existence at the beginning of FY 2012;
b. CPUs and CPOs newly established in FY 2012;
c. CPUs and CPOs closed in FY 2012; and
d. CPUs and CPOs in existence at the end of FY 2012.

USPS responded [see page 4]:
Please see USPS Library Reference USPS-LR-FY12-45, ChIR2.3.xls.

The author has, and he concludes that the data provided by the U.S. Postal Service to the Postal Regulatory Commission regarding CPUs is incomplete and inaccurate. How do I know? Because I've visited locations around the country during FY 2012 that are completely unaccounted for by the response documentation provided.

Save The Post Office analyzed the overall data, and concluded that a net of 500 Contract Postal Units closed during FY 2012, leading to a nearly 15% reduction in contract operations. I do not believe this assessment to be correct. Rather, I'm convinced that the data provided by USPS are incomplete and otherwise misleading.

The U.S. Postal Service, in replying to a similar request for its fiscal year 2011, responded with an Excel file with three sheets: "Closed FY 2011", "Opened FY 2011", and "Open_End FY 2011". There is no reason it should not be able to create a nearly identical product for 2012. Heck, the response to "List the CPUs open at the beginning of FY 2012" should be just about identical to the "List the CPUs open at the end of FY 2011," right? Instead, USPS has responded with a one-sheet Excel file that addresses none of the questions at hand.

Las Vegas

In analyzing a 3,000-row spreadsheet it helps to check a region of entries against information you know. I found it helpful to sort the data first by state, and then by ZIP code. My first test region is the Las Vegas metropolitan area, an area in which I spent five nights and visited every active classified and contract postal operation last spring. I've made a photographic map of all these operations available. There were 21 CPUs in operation within the Las Vegas metro area (which, here, includes Las Vegas, Henderson, and North Las Vegas) at the beginning of May 2012.

(A screenshot of the map:)
Las Vegas postal map

My first observation about the Postal Service data (which is easier to see if you sort the spreadsheet by ZIP code) is that there are 12 duplicate entries: There are 11 gas stations in the region that were previously known as City Stop, each of which possessed a CPU. The chain was bought out by 7-11, and it's likely the CPUs have been converted to that name. In the USPS list, each operation is thus listed twice: once as a City Stop and once as a 7-11. You'll observe that the 7-11 operations occupy sequential contract numbers: 15597 to 15607. This is because they were converted at the same time. In any case, the entries:

15606 7-11 #39599 CPU LAS VEGAS NV 89131
are the same, as are:

15604 7-11 #39600 CPU LAS VEGAS NV 89144

... and so forth.

Another duplicate, listed with two different contract numbers, involves the Greenland Market CPU of 89146, a contract unit located at the front a large Korean supermarket. There is only one Greenland Market.

Accounting for these duplicates, USPS has accounted for 18 of the 21 CPUs within the region. Missing are:
  • Mini Mart and Smoke Shop CPU: 89147
  • Sun Drugs CPU: 89101; active for 35 years(?)
  • Thunderbird Mail Center CPU: 89115; active for at least 15 years
All of these operations -- including, yes, all 11 then-City Stops -- have been mapped and pictured at the map link provided above, and were visited and photographed during FY 2012. And yes, all 21 were listed in the 2011 report.

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa is the parent post office of four CPUs: the East Central Mail Center CPU (74128); American Heritage Bank CPU (74132); U.S.A. Mail Center CPU (74133); and Pryority Mail CPU (74133). As a matter of fact, the latter is among the highest-grossing CPU in the entire U.S. (In some years it is the top-grossing CPU.) Yet it is not listed among the contract units active during FY 2012. Here's a photo, taken during a lull in the otherwise constant stream of customers:

Pryority Mail CPU; Tulsa, OK

The U.S.A. Mail Center CPU is a critical operation as it effectively serves as the retail unit for the Chimney Hills Carrier Annex next door. Yet it's not listed either.

Interestingly enough, the U.S.A. Mail Center CPU and American Heritage CPU had their ZIP codes mis-listed in USPS's 2011 CPU listings.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

The largest city in one of the nation's least-populous states is rather remarkable in that it possesses, besides its main post office, one classified station and 14 CPUs. They are designated numbered stations 1 through 14. Thirteen CPUs are locations of two regional chains: Lewis Drug's and Hy-Vee. There are six of the former and seven of the latter, respectively. USPS's 2012 CPU Directory only accounts for six Hy-Vee locations, however.

Sioux Falls, SD: HyVee CPU (Station 12) Sioux Falls, SD: Hy-Vee CPU

New York City

  • Multiple listings: "Mr. Mailman" and "Mr. Mailman on 53rd Inc" are one and the same. Kate's Market Place in Breezy Point is listed twice despite the fact it opened this past year.
  • Better Letter, the CPU I wrote about last March, is also listed twice -- despite the fact that it was forced to shut down on May 30. (The "A&L Management" listing from the Bronx -- that is the Bathgate CPU -- and Brooklyn's Rita's Dry Cleaners CPU suffered the same fate.)
  • Among the absences is Fordham University's CPU (Station #37) in the Bronx.
  • JW Pharmacy in Flushing, NY is not an actual CPU, though it is listed.

Long Island

  • SUNY Old Westbury's CPO is absent, as is the SUNY Stony Brook CPO which closed December 2011. (If Better Letter, which was not open at the end of FY 2012, is listed, shouldn't this be as well?)
  • East Hampton's The Corner Store CPU is absent.
  • Fire Island's Davis Park CPO is absent.
  • Fire Island's Kismet CPO is misspelled 'Kismit'.
  • Depot Stationery is misspelled "Stationary" [see below]. Stationary means 'not moving', though I suppose that is a good quality for a given postal operation these days.
  • The Fair Harbor CPO is proceeded by "SEAS", meaning seasonal (as in, open only during the summer); interestingly, this annotation is not applied to the other CPOs on Fire Island, for which this is also true.
Huntington Station, NY: Depot Stationery CPU

There are many more errors or inconsistencies where these came from. As such I believe this response to the Chairman's Request should be remanded for further consideration.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Penny-Wise and Dollar-Absurd: Postal Logic in California

No businessman in his right mind would pull his consumer-oriented retail operation out of a high-traffic shopping plaza and place it, instead, miles away, in an industrial building, behind iron fences, at the end of a difficult-to-access dead-end road beside a highway.

Of course there are some operative words in that statement; I'll let you figure out which words those are.

Facilities folks in California have been consolidating operations left and right, taking postal retail operations out of commercial districts and shoving them into carrier annexes along the edges of communities: Ukiah, Santa Monica, and El Segundo come to mind from the past year. Many of the retail operations being closed and unceremoniously disposed of include historic buildings from the early 20th century and the Great Depression. (See: Venice, Santa Monica, La Jolla, Berkeley, and Ukiah.) This has been accomplished done over many of the communities' dead bodies. But the most absurd plan stems from the area of Thousand Oaks, which lies between Los Angeles and Ventura. Here the Postal Service wants to consolidate the Newbury Park Branch [retail operation] into the Newbury Park Carrier Annex. I actually spent two nights at a hotel right by the Newbury Park post office last summer when my car needed brake work.

To give you a geographic fix:

USPS currently leases the Newbury Branch post office for $179,232 a year. There seems to be good reason for this; according to the USPS California Leased Facilities Report, the post office has been in this shopping plaza since May 1968. The present lease expires in April. This site was chosen to be as accessible to members of the community as possible, and has clearly served this purpose well. Let's access a visual:
Newbury Park Branch post office

I was one of five customers at the time I visited the branch. The location also has stacks of P.O. Boxes and is accessible to box customers after hours and during weekends. One guesses the woman in the photograph above finds this location very convenient.

As Save The Post Office has previously detailed, there are 14 retail outlets, including a UPS Store, in that shopping plaza. My hotel was across the street, and three more shopping plazas are nearby. All the restaurants, grocery stores, drugstores, car repair shops, and In-N-Out Burgers are over in this commercial district. Basically, anything a Californian wants is here, and that's why the post office is here to begin with—people go here.

The Postal Service owns and has operated the Newbury Park Carrier Annex since 2001. It's a facility that was designed to be on cheap remote land, accessed only by carriers who head in and drive their trucks out of there as soon as humanly possible. As you can see, it's not exactly the epitome of warm and inviting:

Newbury Park Carrier Annex

It's incredibly unappealing even if you can see the actual building:
Newbury Park Carrier Annex

(Behind this is the stunning vista of six lanes of asphalt!)

Clearly, it's an utilitarian structure. It's in the industrial part of 'town'. Though, actually, it's not in any part of town. There's a steep hill behind it, so don't expect much development nearby anytime soon. And out of curiosity, can you find any windows on here? Google has a nice 45-degree aerial view of the site:

Let's check out some maps!

The Newbury Park Carrier Annex is a 2.5- to 3.1-mile drive from the Newbury Park retail site, depending the route you take. I drove the route and can tell you firsthand that the directions are not straightforward. There are immediate-turns-after-turns, curves, and freeway entrances to avoid. That, and any customer expecting a commercial venue would wonder whether they're even on the right road when heading to the Annex. Without an accurate map you will most likely get lost at least once.

The satellite view shows a clearer picture of the Newbury Park land use patterns.

Residential areas are located primarily south of the highway, as is the primary retail District including the present Newbury Park post office. North of the highway, you find primarily office parks, industrial companies, and The Home Depot -- specialized operations not designed to be visited by everyday consumers on a daily basis.

So Where's Waldo the Carrier Annex? Down 0.6 miles of dead-end road, past a church and operations such as Verizon Wireless Business Services, Westlake Sheet Metal and Advanced Solar Electric. This location could be physically closer for some residents, but mentally it's a complete pain in the butt. No matter what other errands or plans you have that day, you have to head 2.5 miles in the other direction.

This said, what would you expect to result from the Postal Service's current plans? Well I wouldn't want to have to drive three miles out of my way to access my P.O. Box, so maybe I'd close the Box. Perhaps I'd move it to the still-conveniently-located UPS Store instead. Maybe I'd give UPS a chance for my packages, because I'm conducting all my afternoon shopping right in the shopping plaza, and not three miles to the middle of nowhere. Tell me the Newbury Park post office will not lose a great proportion of its revenue as a result of Facilities' charade.

If the Postal Service were intentionally trying to drive away customers -- if it were intentionally trying to make itself less relevant to the public than it claims it has already become, then it could do no better than to move its retail operations here. At the moment, the Postal Service is located in a prime retail spot that has served it well for nearly 45 years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it; right? Instead, USPS could not have picked a better location within the entire community to make itself more inaccessible and uninviting.

The site for the Newbury Park Carrier Annex was chosen for cheap land and to be used by employees only. It should remain that way.

Here's one final satellite view:

Friday, January 11, 2013

Triboro Misses the Mark (but Eventually Hits it Again)

First, some background:

New York City's Triboro postal District is among the nation's smallest in terms of geographic area served as well as number of postal facilities operated. That said, it services five million people, more than three times the population within the vast Dakotas District (which includes North and South Dakota as well as Montana). Within NYC the adjacent New York District takes on Manhattan and the Bronx, while Triboro manages Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

In 2009, before its nationwide Area Mail Processing initiative, USPS consolidated many operations from the mail processing facilities in Staten Island and Queens into Brooklyn's massive Processing and Distribution Center (the Brooklyn P&DC), home of the Triboro District offices. (Said was previously featured and pictured on this blog.) Previously, nearly all mail from within New York City would be cancelled with a postmark bearing the name of its respective borough. Within Triboro, however, everyone would receive a postmark that reads the following:

(It could be worse; the Bronx lost all recognition when mail processing consolidated into New York's Morgan Annex a couple of years ago.)

Mind you, there's no real connection between the 'Triboro' boroughs beyond their postal affiliation—the Triborough Bridge connects Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, after all. The New York Times, in a rather thorough article, reported that various folks around the city were dismayed by this development. But at least Queens and Staten Island still held their (if diminished) statures on their mail.

Over the course of 2012 my father and I (Queens residents) were perplexed and/or annoyed to discover that most mail processed with a TRIBORO cancel began to shortchange our fair borough: the 'QNS' had vanished. The truncated postmark now read "TRIBORO NY 112 / BKLYN-STATEN ISL." Here's an example:

Triboro NY postmark, missing Queens. What is this—BIBORO? It felt a bit like a Carmen Sandiego episode.

Let's put this in perspective: the population of Queens exceeds 2.3 million. Houston proper contains 2.1 million people; Philadelphia: 1.5 million. Phoenix: 1.5 million. USPS had just deleted one of the nation's largest cities from the mailstream.

By the end of November I'd heard nothing from a handful of my contacts, so I decided to call the Plant Manager's office directly to see if there was any rationale for the change. I reached someone in the support staff and apprised him of the issue. No one seemed to know anything about the invisible borough. But, the nice guy I spoke with said he'd look into it.

Happily for folks who reside in our fantastic and diverse borough, all letters I've received that have been cancelled on or after December 17, 2012 have been cancelled with the reinstated QNS. Here are a couple of before-and-afters:

Brooklyn P&DC [AFCS] machine 1:
Triboro NY postmark, with and without Queens

Brooklyn P&DC [AFCS] machine 3:
Triboro NY postmark, with and without Queens

Brooklyn P&DC [AFCS] machine 6:
Triboro NY postmark, with and without Queens

Brooklyn P&DC [AFCS] machine 7: no 'before' example.
Triboro NY postmark, with Queens

Small details add up when it comes to serving folks. Unfortunately medium-sized cities across America are losing their postmarks, but hopefully my three letters .

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Unique Stop: Postal History Foundation

I spent two afternoons at one post office. But this isn't your average P.O. The Postal History Foundation (PHF) in Tucson, Arizona (est. 1960) is an institution that's more than worth a visit for a postal buff.

Postal History Foundation exterior

Many stamp collectors recall that two of the best USPS Philatelic Centers in the country lied in Providence, RI and Tucson, AZ. These were located within each city's respective main post office and had all the stamps you could want, and more. They would feature frequent pictorial cancellations as well. These are now gone, though my father obtained a postmark from Tucson's "Old Pueblo" Philatelic Center before it closed:

Tucson, Arizona Philatelic Center cancellation

Without a dedicated philatelic staff, something unique has happened: present-day Tucson pictorial cancellations are now serviced, instead of by USPS, by a Contract Postal Unit (CPU): namely, the Postal History Foundation's. Longtime readers might recall that there was an 11-11-11 pictorial cancel available in Tucson. Look closely at the image, and you can see the address is that of the PHF. Here's a cancel I received back in the mail―beautifully struck, as you can see.

11-11-11 pictorial cancel from Tucson

Effectively, the PHF is now the Philatelic Center for Tucson. But I'd realized none of this when I walked in. I just went to visit a CPU and get a cancel for my collection. The PHF maintains a Postmark America-style permanent pictorial, as well as a couple of standard round daters. The stamp selection was impeccable (read: much more thorough than that of nearly any 'standard' post office), and I bought a sheet of the U.S.S. Constitution stamps.

Postal History Foundation post office entrance

But the PHF had much more, so I was lead around the floor of the foundation and library. I spent most of my time with the amicable and knowledgeable Paul Nelson, and took photos so you can take a tour along with me!

Look―I'm the Naco Postmaster!
Old Naco post office at the Postal History Foundation

Naco is a Mexican border town about 100 miles southeast of Tucson. The old interior structure, including P.O. boxes and window, is at the Postal History Foundation. They preserve many postal artifacts there, which I'll let you visit and discover for yourselves. Or you can view their website here. But you're allowed in the back, and I found it loads of fun.

The primary work room was decorated with many enlarged stamps along the walls. Around the room there were two primary clusters of tables, each of which contained work stations at which volunteers sorted stamps -- cancelled or mint -- and other materials for the foundation, much of which is available free of charge to educational institutions around the country. There were about four volunteers for most of the first afternoon I spent there.

Beyond this there is a reading room with art exhibits and two libraries stacked with goodies, including every issue of Linn's Stamp News ever publishe, as well as archives of other philatelic publications, postal references, and other history books.

Postal History Foundation library / reading room

In the museum there are older donated stamps available for at or below face value; I bought $40 worth. Here Paul told me about the PHF's many youth education initiatives. If you donate your cancelled stamps to the PHF, they will make packets available to teachers to help teach kids about anything from history to transportation. They make these themed sets of stamps available to teachers absolutely free. I think it's a great cause.

Tucson's got several other interesting postal facets to it. But those will have to wait for another post.