June 3, 2012

Viewpoints: Gem of a building deserves new life

In the 1930s, with the country suffering through the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated an economic stimulus plan that precipitated the construction of thousands of new federal projects across the country.

In the 1930s, with the country suffering through the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated an economic stimulus plan that precipitated the construction of thousands of new federal projects across the country. And because of the New Deal's mandate to build high-quality structures, it also left a legacy of architectural gems, many of which still stand today.

One of the best examples here in Sacramento is the historic U.S. Postal Service building on I Street, designed by the local firm Starks and Flanders, and completed in 1933. Leonard Starks is the same man who designed other iconic Sacramento buildings like the Elks Tower, the Alhambra Theatre and C.K. McClatchy High School. And his neoclassical post office with a Doric colonnade remains one of our city's grandest structures.

But with the rise of electronic communication, the Postal Service has been declining for years, resulting in the closure of an astonishing number of post offices. During the New Deal program of the '30s, the government constructed more than 1,100 new post offices. But last July the Postal Service announced it would close 3,653 post offices (although it recently announced it will try to save many of them by reducing their hours).

Sacramento's historic post office was not on the closure list, but in an effort to reduce costs, the Postal Service will move operations to the Westfield Downtown Plaza on July 31.

And while it's sad to lose public access to this historic post office with its ornate interior of brass lighting fixtures, an elaborately designed coffered ceiling and terrazzo floors, this move also leaves Sacramento with an opportunity that many other communities are pouncing on.

From small towns to big cities, local governments and private developers are recognizing the extraordinary potential in converting these historic, elegant structures into community assets such as museums, theaters and universities that have the power to change the face of their downtowns.

One of the most exciting examples involves another 1933 structure: the Beverly Hills post office. Shuttered in the '90s, the building was purchased by the city of Beverly Hills, and a $15 million gift from the Annenberg Foundation paved the way to incorporate the building into a stunning performing arts complex that will open next year.

Other cities have also expanded their cultural options by converting New Deal-era buildings into museums. In 2000, the feds sold the city of Las Vegas the former U.S. post office and the courthouse (also built in 1933) for $1 on the condition that the building be used for cultural purposes. Earlier this year, the building was reborn as the Mob Museum, which expects to attract 300,000 annual visitors to its downtown.

Nashville's 1934 post office reopened in 2001 as the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The project was a public-private partnership that included Nashville's Frist Foundation, the city and the Postal Service. In this case, too, the city owns the building, which the feds sold under the condition that the facility, as in Las Vegas, be used for cultural purposes.

In Portland, Ore., that city's 1918 post office will also soon be a focal point for the arts, but in the form of a university. In 2008, the General Services Administration awarded the building – at no cost – to the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

In other cities, private investors have purchased old post offices and courthouses to convert them into residential, retail or hotel properties.

In Dallas, developers turned that city's 1930 post office into 78 residential units. Similar efforts are under way in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even in Modesto, where another 1933 post office was purchased by a developer last year with plans to convert it into lofts.

So what about Sacramento?

Before we start dreaming, there are some obstacles. The Postal Service now occupies only about 11,000 square feet of the structure.

Another 34,000 square feet is already vacant. The rest of the building's 160,000 square feet is filled with other federal agencies. To convert this building into an extraordinary cultural asset, they would need to move.

But there is precedent for the GSA vacating historic post offices to make room for uses that are beneficial to their respective cities.

When the GSA turned over control of the Portland post office to the art school, two federal agencies – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – occupied 54,000 square feet. The GSA decided to relocate them to nongovernmental buildings.

Here in Sacramento, we have 72,000 square feet of empty space at the nearby Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse and the John E. Moss Federal Building, according to the GSA. And with downtown's dismal vacancy rates, the feds could get a great deal on space built in this century. In turn, the city would get a majestic building with which to conjure a cultural or educational magnet for downtown.

So if we got it, what could we do with it?

One idea might be to lure a satellite campus of a major university here, like we did with Philadelphia-based Drexel University a few years ago. In March, Boston's Emerson College broke ground on an $85 million campus in Hollywood. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School recently moved into a San Francisco building constructed in 1925. Having thousands of students in a downtown campus would be a great thing.

And when it comes to museums, Sacramento is at a serious cultural deficit. Of the 35 largest cities in America, Sacramento ranks dead last (tied with Detroit, San Jose and Fresno) with only two museums that are members of the American Association of Museums. Sure, we have a few more that aren't members, but so do other cities. And the AAM number is one that publications like Money magazine use to determine their "Best Places To Live" rankings. No matter how you slice it, we come up short.

What kind of museum would be the right fit for Sacramento? That would be a great conversation to have as a city. Perhaps there's a way to tap into the Crocker's vast collection to carve out a distinct focus for a second museum, possibly with an emphasis on contemporary art or photography. In San Francisco, for example, the de Young and Legion of Honor are part of the same museum group.

Or in the way that Vegas capitalizes on its connection to the mob, perhaps we can create a compelling concept for a Museum of California Politics. Or maybe the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum would consider a West Coast satellite location. Or the California Museum (with its increasingly prominent California Hall of Fame) might be interested in its own space instead of occupying part of the off-the-beaten-path Secretary of State complex.

But time is short. The GSA intends to replace the Postal Service space with other federal agencies, though no plans are currently in place.

With dozens of government buildings downtown, far too many streets close at 5 p.m. But we can change that. Converting a government building into a public one would be a huge victory for the city. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to both celebrate history and reverse it at the same time.

Regardless of what we'd do with our historic post office, we should see this moment as the rare opportunity that it is – a chance to dream big and the potential to enliven downtown and attract visitors from around the region, state and country.

This building is the perfect example of how great projects were once born out of desperate times. Now, with the economy on the rocks 80 years later, it's time to take bold action again and strike a New Deal of our own.

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