Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Positive Impact of POStPlan?

Editor's notes: In discussing the nationwide implementation of POStPlan we consider frequently the reduction of retail hours at rural post offices and the dismissal of Postmasters. Often overlooked is the need for local residents who have no rural delivery to be able to pick up their mail beyond the hours of a post office's new reduced hours of, say, 8—10 A.M. Here's how that issue is being addressed in many parts of the Midwest and in particular at one office affected by POStPlan in eastern Iowa. Mr. Bahnsen is encouraging and working with various postal officials around the country to improve access to Post Office Box lobbies, whether or not those post offices are impacted by POStPlan and its attendant reduced window hours. (This post does not necessarily endorse the latter policy.)

A POStPlan Perspective by Steven Bahnsen, retired Postmaster:

POStPlan is sweeping rural America. Perhaps you have heard of it, or even had this affect your community's post office. It was designed to eliminate Postmaster jobs, and while small post offices will remain open, their window hours will be reduced to 6, 4, or even 2 hours a day.

Postal Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C. selected which offices would be impacted by POStPlan, and gave guidance to its local Districts regarding the logistics of its implementation.

POStPlan mandates that residents' ability to access their Post Office Boxes [in the post office lobby] not be reduced upon the plan's implementation. If a lobby was open all the time, access would not change. If the boxes were available from, say, 7:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., or even if the boxes were only accessible during the morning, lobby access hours would not be reduced even as retail hours were impacted. Nowhere within POStPlan were there instructions that box lobby hours could not be expanded, only that they could not be reduced. In this way POStPlan has afforded the Postal Service with the opportunity to re-evaluate and in many cases improve P.O. Box mail access.

Clinton, Iowa post office (taken 1989)
Old Clinton, IA post office

My own postal history dates to about 1965 when I discovered the glorious 1902 post office in my hometown of Clinton, Iowa. I was mesmerized by the marble walls and floors in this building where people came to buy stamps and mail things. The whirr of the cancelling machine in the late afternoon and evenings was music to my ears, as was the idea that any person could come into this building at any time to get their P.O. Box mail. The concept that everyone should be able to get their mail at any time has stayed with me for 50 years.

For decades Iowa has housed hundreds of post offices whose lobbies are accessible at all hours. Plenty of other offices maintain lobbies that are accessible into the evening courtesy of automated time locks, many of which were installed during the 1980s.

POStPlan has provided the impetus to turn off the time locks at many offices and just leave the lobby open all the time. [The postal Districts governing] Minnesota, northwestern Wisconsin, Missouri, southern Illinois, and Indiana are among those that have joined Iowa['s] in simply leaving post offices' lobbies open once POStPlan impacts them.

The expanded lobby hours have been a boon to many communities. Residents need no longer race home from work just to pick up their mail before the post office is locked for the evening. Now they can get their mail after dinner, on Saturday afternoons, or even Sundays and holidays — any time that suits them. Only minor security modifications have been required at many offices for this plan to succeed.

A novel idea was implemented in Goose Lake in eastern Iowa, a town of 250 people (and a large school complex) about 15 miles from the Mississippi River. Their post office building was hastily constructed 35 years ago [in 1978] with the P.O. Boxes and window counter all occupying the same room. The entire building needed to be locked while the Postmaster took lunch [before window hours were reduced upon the implementation of POStPlan]. A 24-hour lobby here is out of the question.

Here the Postal Service provided and installed four large cluster boxes in front of the post office building, meaning residents can pick up their mail whenever they want to -- for the first time in history in Goose Lake. The equipment also includes eight parcel lockers (another first), which enable most customers to pick up a package that is too large for their mailbox at any time.

[Below: the Goose Lake post office featuring cluster boxes for increased P.O. Box mail access. The boxes were added upon the implementation of POStPlan as the post office lobby could not be left unlocked beyond the newly diminished retail hours.]
Goose Lake, IA post office

Some residents preferred to keep their Post Office Boxes inside. Those are accessible from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM during the week as well as for a couple of hours Saturday morning.

The standard blue collection box is emptied each afternoon after 4:00 P.M. by the Highway Contract Route driver and taken to the Quad Cities P&DF [about 45 minutes south].

POStPlan has its downsides, but I firmly believe that in this respect people are being better served now by being able to access their mail every day, even if the retail window is open less.

Steven Bahnsen, Chicago, Illinois

Note: During my own travels I've observed that post offices in the southern part of the country are much more likely to maintain P.O. Box lobbies that are accessible 24/7. Rare is a 24-hour lobby in the Northeast, even in remote and presumably safe areas in Pennsylvania and New England. In the South 24-hour lobbies are pervasive.

Friday, June 7, 2013

CPU Adventures, III: Silver Dollar City

The Post Mark Collectors Club (PMCC) held its 2012 annual convention in Branson, Missouri. A feature of our annual conventions is a tour of one or more local post offices. Sometimes this involves taking ferries to small island post offices. Last year this meant a tour of 15 local operations in southwest Missouri.

However, omitted was one unusual operation, at a 61-acre theme park between Branson and Branson West: Silver Dollar City is themed for the 1880s, during when the not-so-successful Marble Cave Mining and Manufacturing Company mined guano from what turned out to be a limestone-walled cave. Eventually it was decided that a cave train would be a destination for tourists and that an 1880s-style city would be built around it. There are rides, festivals, shows, and a general store featuring a Community Post Office (CPO) as well. It was the very latter aspect that interested me, and which brought myself and two other postal vets (Kelvin and John) back to the park for a visit.

Silver Dollar City is obscenely busy; the free parking lots are packed, though you can pay $12 for 'preferred parking' (and valet parking is available for $30 per visit). We parked in a free lot and waited for a tram to the park entrance, at which the friendly staff, who claimed to never host any visitors for the sole purpose of seeing their post office, offered to escort us in for free and let us take photos.

First, a map:

The General Store is not too far inside the main entrance, and a nice sign greets you on the way in:

Silver Dollar City, MO Community Post Office: Silver Dollar City, MO post office
Inside you witness a classic wooden postal counter with antique P.O. Boxes of the type one rarely sees:
Silver Dollar City, MO post office
Silver Dollar City, MO post office

I enjoyed the gilded old-style collection box out front and the sign which looks upon it:
Silver Dollar City, MO post office

Good stuff.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Before and After: Fairfield County, Connecticut

Broadly speaking, USPS's operations entail the intake of mail through its retail, bulk mail acceptance, and collection box network; the processing of mail within its ever-diminishing network of plants; and the delivery of mail to 151 million addresses and P.O. Boxes around the country. The messenger of delivery is, of course, your friendly neighborhood mail carrier, who is stationed at your nearest postal 'delivery office'. Usually the carrier would originate from a/the post office in your ZIP code, but a USPS program called Delivery Unit Optimization (DUO) is moving thousands of carriers away from their traditional offices into a regional 'hub' offices alongside carriers who serve other neighborhoods or communities. When this happens, the offices that lose their carriers get 'demoted': the Postmasters who originally supervised carriers work with a reduced staff and get reduced pay. Additionally, USPS often looks to downsize its operations in the 'losing' communities in its oft-repeated sound bite: "right-sizing our network." What this actually means, however, at least if the 'losing' community possesses a historic post office building, is that USPS will now sell said building to a developer through its real estate agent (CBRE) for instant cash. In return, USPS will lease back a minimal, characterless retail space nearby and call all things equal.

(Note: While not all these carrier moves are specifically done under the DUO name -- DUO is specifically being implemented in rural post offices -- the consolidations discussed here are being implemented under the same imprimatur.)

In some parts of the country, it would seem as though USPS is going out of its way to move carriers out of historic downtown post office buildings into neighboring communities or a town's outskirts whenever possible, rather than vice versa. (In fairness, most of these cheap-land outskirt facilities maintain a larger footprint.) California features many controversial examples of historic downtown buildings recently sold as carriers are dumped to outlying facilities: Berkeley, Ukiah, Venice, Santa Monica, and La Jolla, to name a few. In the northeast, Manhattan and southern Connecticut are feeling this trend rather acutely: at least several Manhattan post offices have or are slated to be relocated to smaller premises within a year (the Washington Bridge, Triborough — a.k.a. 'Tito Puente', Old Chelsea, and Peter Stuyvesant Station post offices). Connecticut has or will soon experience the repurposing of historic post office buildings in the cities of Greenwich, Stamford, Westport, Fairfield, Derby, Norwich, and New London.

To further explain this postal logic: as of 2010 there were 21 carrier routes stationed in the New London post office, an amazing building which deserves its own entry on this blog. Plans are to move all of the carriers who serve New London out of the city and into an early-'90s facility in nearby Waterford, four miles away. That equates to 20 carriers traveling four additional miles twice a day, likely all requiring their own mail trucks (as opposed to many taking walking routes). It should be noted that each of the historic New London post office's three floors of space possesses more room than does all of Waterford's facility. What can you do?

Fairfield County in southernwest Connecticut features several examples of how the Postal Service is abdicating its role as a steward of an unparalleled bounty of New Deal architecture by eviscerating its holdings to least-common-denominator shells. And if it can happen here, in some of the richest communities in America, then it can happen anywhere.

The Postmaster General responded to concerns of the Berkeley community with spurious financial memes, such as the faux-accounting claim that USPS is losing $25 million per day, ergo such sales are necessary to preserve the future of the Postal Service (in which case four $6.25 million< historic building sales would help USPS stay on its feet nearly 24 hours longer! Clearly there's a fallacy in here somewhere). It also claims the facilities are no longer needed due to "continued mail volume declines" and "changing consumer needs". No, it's not that; it's that all the carriers are being crammed into neighboring communities so the old building can be sold to developers. The initiator of Delivery Unit Optimization is clearly getting a huge promotion.

Here's a map of completed or attempted sales in southwestern Connecticut:
Historic post office building sales; Fairfield County, CT

1. Greenwich, CT
Constructed: 1916-7. Sold: 2011 for $15 million. New purpose: Restoration Hardware, a 'luxury home furnishings purveyor.' New Deal mural: "Old Days in Greenwich" by Victoria Hutson Huntley, 1939.

The sale of this monumental 17,000-square-foot operation, most recently called the Greenwich Avenue Station post office, was made possible by USPS's moving mail processing and delivery operations out of this facility (a.k.a. implementing DUO) to the 1993 Greenwich Main Post Office on the outskirts of town. In its stead, the Postal Service has leased a previous pet supply store for $258,000 per year (see USPS's Leased Facilities Report: CT). The new facility, which is about 0.4 miles north of the old post office, is designated the Downtown Station post office. It features an Automated Postal Center and a lobby that is accessible 24/7. It's also got a new, odd style of retail counter layout that lets anybody walk between the customer area and the restricted employee area if one wanted to.

Here are photos of the before-and-after operations:
[Before:] Greenwich, CT: Greenwich Avenue Station post office
Historic Greenwich Avenue post office

[After:] Greenwich, CT: Downtown Station post office
Greenwich, CT: Downtown Station post office

Fortunately the building and the artwork will remain intact and in the community. The former site is presently surrounded by fences and is inaccessible to the public while renovations occur. The stonework façade is being restored and "4,500-square-foot second level with a sunken roof deck" is being added. The mural is being restored and moved across the street from the old post office to the Greenwich Board of Education headquarters.

2. Westport, CT
Constructed: 1935. Sold: 2011 for $2.35 million [Appraised at $3.6 million]. New purpose: Post 154, a boutique restaurant. New Deal artwork: none.

The sale of the stately Depression-era Westport post office was made possible by moving carrier operations into a carrier annex (constructed in 2000) in adjacent Norwalk. (More precisely, 2.5 miles to the suburban middle of nowhere.) Thus, according to a 2009 article by Westport's Patch, the building is being sold "because the USPS is having financial problems ... and the building is larger than Westport postal workers need now that mail is sorted in Norwalk."

At the beginning of 2012 the Postal Service closed its doors on the heart of the Westport commercial district and moved to an ignominious location in an recessed shopping plaza. (It might just be a quarter-mile up the road, but still.) In fact, USPS chose the ugliest, cheapest corner of the ugliest plaza and appended a generic two-square foot white-on-blue sign that states "Westport MPO // Westport, CT". Not only do most people not know what 'MPO' means, but there aren't any other post offices in Westport with which to confuse it! For the privilege of reducing its footprint from 7,650 to 2,500 square feet, the Postal Service is paying $104,400 a year. Furthermore, any local businesses who had previously deposited bulk mail at the Westport post office must now travel to the annex in Norwalk to do so. On the plus side, there is now 24-hour lobby access for P.O. Box holders.

[Before:] Westport, CT post office (2010)
Historic Westport, CT post office

[After:] Westport, CT post office
New Westport, CT post office

The historic post office building, at 154 Post Road East, whose last day of postal business was Dec. 31, 2011, is presently being converted to a high-end restaurant: Post 154. Hip, isn't it? The location will feature "outdoor dining, a large bar and a room for private parties." As with the high-end luxury furniture store in Greenwich, this highfalutin use is exactly what our grandparents and great-grandparents had in mind when their tax dollars helped to fund these great (formerly-)public works. Fortunately, Post 154 fills a glaring void in downtown Westport as only five other high-end restaurants and cafés have opened there during the past year.

Westport, CT: Post 154 Restaurant sign

3. Fairfield, CT
Constructed: 1936. Sold: 2012 for $4.3 million. New purpose: Plan B Burger Bar and other tenants. New Deal mural: "Tempora Mutantur et Nos Mutamur in Illis" ("Times Change and We Change With Them") by Alice Flint, 1938.

The name of the mural sure is apt, isn't it? The carriers from the 16,000-square-foot Fairfield Main Post Office have been moved to the 1992 Commerce Station post office, a 2.5-mile trek to the industrial corner of Fairfield, which lies by I-95 and the train tracks. (A fun place to pick up one's packages!) This allowed USPS to cut its downtown footprint by moving just a couple hundred feet down the road. USPS's Leased Facilities report should, but does not, reflect this new lease at 1300 Post Road, and as such its footprint and lease terms are not available for publication at this time.

The proximity of the new location to the old post office allows for a before-and-after comparison in one photograph!

Old and new Fairfield, CT post offices
Old and new Fairfield, CT post office

[Before:] Fairfield, CT post office (by John Gallagher, 2006; a PMCC photo)
Old Fairfield, CT post office

[After:] Fairfield, CT post office
New Fairfield, CT post office

The new post office maintains modern POS [postal computer system] counters and is accessible at all hours. The 44"-by-168" (nearly-four feet-by-sixteen feet) mural now lies in a second-floor conference room at Fairfield's [Sullivan] Independence Hall, the Town Hall. The mural was restored at a cost of $25,000 to the Postal Service, which still owns the art and has loaned it to the town for a 25-year term. Both USPS and the Fairfield Arts Advisory Committee pushed hard to ensure that the mural stayed in its home town.

The old Main Post Office is slated to house several tenants, the most prominent of which is a local Connecticut organic burger restaurant known as the Plan B Burger Bar. (Other signature dishes, the Fairfield Citizen notes, include "Lobster Mac & Cheese and Beef Wellington Bites".) There seems to be a theme developing with these post office reuse plans.

Only time will tell how many of the 2,000+ historic post office buildings USPS occupies will be sold in the name of supposed progress and [actual or imaginary] debt-cutting.