SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) -- The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Aug. 22, asserting the city of Berkeley illegally interfered with the sale of its historic main office and property in the city center.
According to the lawsuit, USPS has suffered financial damages and been prevented from selling the main post office as a result of the City Council adopting Resolution 66,025-N.S, which states the city opposes its sale due to its historic value.
USPS is seeking a permanent injunction against the city as defendant and declaration that associated municipal code Chapter 23E.98 is invalid, null and void, along with legal fees and any other relief the court deems just.
¨The city rezoned the land in the Civic Center historic district to ensure that future uses were compatible with the predominant historic uses in the district,'' Berkeley city attorney Zachary Cowan told Legal Newsline in an email response to questions. ¨Doing so is within the city's police power.¨
USPS has been trying to sell the historic Berkeley Main Post Office since summer 2014. In September 2014, the Berkeley City Council passed a rezoning bill that strictly limits development of the building and property, as well as eight other properties in a historic downtown zone known as the Civic Center.
Subsequently added to the National Register of Historic Places, the city council established the boundaries of the historic district in 1998.
The city council describes the Civic Center as a ¨place for community activities, cultural, educational, and civic activities¨ in the city's General Plan. Among other limitations, the Civic Center Overlay rezoning law limits building heights to 120 feet, lower than the nearby City Hall. http://www.berkeleyside.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2014-09-30-Item-05-Ordinance-7370.pdf
USPS listed the ¨Neoclassical Renaissance¨ Berkeley Main Post Office for sale in October 2014 after originally announcing its intention to sell the building and property in mid-2012.
USPS attorney R. Clark Morrison of Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP in San Francisco reportedly sent five letters criticizing the Civic Overlay rezoning bill to the city council before its adoption. In them, he alleges the Civic Overlay Plan is spot zoning and that the city's decision not to carry out a full environmental review in association with the plan contradicts its own code and the law. LINK: http://www.berkeleyside.com/2014/09/30/with-berkeley-set-to-change-civic-center-zoning-us-postal-service-ponders-lawsuit/
The Berkeley Main Post office is one of 41 building listed on real estate service company CBRE's website that USPS has put up for sale. LINK: http://www.cbre.com/
Civic groups and city council members have been organizing and taking action to thwart the sale since USPS' announcement that it intended to sell the historic building. The Civic Overlay is the latest.
The sponsor of the Civic Center District Overlay, Councilman Jesse Arrequin in a July 2013 item on the City Council agenda, wrote that the rezoning bill ''ill not only limit uses of properties in the district to those consistent with the character of the district, it will also ensure that the Downtown Post Office can only be utilized for a civic or community oriented use, and may help influence the USPS [to] decide a more favorable future for the building.''
USPS' attorney asserts the Civic District Overlay, as enacted, is an example of spot zoning and violates planning and zoning laws, as well as state environmental rules. Acting on behalf of USPS, Morrison on Sept. 9 requested the city council postpone a vote on whether to adopt the Civic District Overlay until an environmental review could be conducted, which he noted is required under state law. The city council decided an environmental review was not required.
USPS and the city council have sharply differing views of the rezoning law and any sale of the Main Post Office. USPS believes that by passing the Civic District Overlay the city council has eliminated creative possibilities for redeveloping the site in a way that would conserve its historic character while revitalizing the downtown civic center area.
The city contends that selling the site could lead to urban decay and hollowing out of downtown Berkeley, bringing an end to its broad-based appeal as a center for community activities.