Berkeley Loses a Round in Fight Over Downtown Post Office

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge has refused Berkeley’s request to dismiss the U.S. Postal Service’s lawsuit accusing it of obstructing the sale of the historic downtown Post Office.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup rejected both of Berkeley’s arguments: that the case is unripe, and that the Postal Service failed to state a claim that the city violated the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

“These allegations are sufficient to survive dismissal,” Alsup wrote in the Jan. 12 ruling.

The Postal Service sued Berkeley in July 2016, claiming the city interfered with a mandate under the Postal Reorganization Act to sell the 102-year-old building, by passing a zoning ordinance restricting it to civic and nonprofit uses.

The Postal Service says the ordinance scared away buyers, who will not pay a suitable price for a building with restrictions on commercial use.

With fewer customers and shrinking revenue, the Postal Service announced plans in 2011 to close as many as 3,700 branches nationwide.

As part of its cost-cutting, it said it would sell its main post office building at 2000 Alston Way in Berkeley, as it needs only 4,000 square feet of the 57,000-square-foot building, and that it would move to a smaller site.

The Postal Service says the City Council used the zoning ordinance to block the sale of the building, and that Mayor Tom Bates told a local newspaper that “this is a good way to do it.”

Alsup found that the Postal Service’s case is ripe because the rezoning prevents it from selling its building, in violation of the Supremacy Clause.

“Insofar as the USPS is unable to reduce costs by selling the post office as planned, withholding of court consideration would impose hardship on the USPS,” Alsup wrote in the 11-page order. He didn’t buy the city’s argument that the case is unripe because the Postal Service has no solid plan to sell the building.

“The city would demand as a prerequisite for ripeness the very outcome it is accused of precluding,” Alsup wrote. “The USPS seeks redress, not for interference with any actual attempt to sell the post office, but for interference with its ability to even attempt to find a buyer.”

Alsup did buy the Postal Service’s argument that Berkeley rezoned part of its downtown to make the building unattractive to buyers.

The city claimed that its rezoning ordinance applied to all of the commercial buildings in the area. But at a December 2016 hearing, Department of Justice attorney Julia Berman told Alsup that only nine downtown buildings were rezoned, most of them owned by the city. In its brief to the court, the Postal Service said the area was so irregularly shaped that it smacked of gerrymandering.

The Postal Service also claimed that the ordinance allowed other businesses to conduct commercial activity that is prohibited in the rezoned area.

The Department of Justice declined to comment Friday.

Alsup found that the Postal Service plausibly alleged that the rezoning ordinance “effectively bans” the sale of the post office, though the Postal Reorganization Act directs the Postal Service to sell its properties to remain stable enough to continue providing services.

Trial has been set for Dec. 4.

Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan did not respond to a request for comment Friday.