Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Clearwater council member proposes repurposing historic post office before it's too late

CLEARWATER — At a time when the U.S. Postal Service has shuttered hundreds of post offices across the country, Vice Mayor Jay Polglaze is proposing a preemptive strike to save downtown's historic building before it ever lands on a closure list.

His vision is for the city to buy the 82-year-old Mediterranean-style post office at 650 Cleveland Street and repurpose it into a concept restaurant, retail space or other use. The arrangement, much like the city's purchase of the Capitol Theatre, would be a way to preserve a historic building while hosting an economic engine, he said.

"It's about creating an incredible economic opportunity for the city of Clearwater as well as an incredible asset for all citizens to enjoy," he said.

His idea, pitched during the Community Redevelopment Agency meeting Monday, is clear, but the way to go about getting the USPS-owned building into the city's hands is not as straightforward.

Polglaze, a 35-year postal employee, suggested the city ask the USPS to close the downtown post office and add the building to the federal surplus property list so the city can acquire it through a General Services Administration program.

The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce also wrote a letter to Rep. David Jolly on Oct. 9 supporting Polglaze's proposal and asking him to "push to have it included on the United States Postal Service's list of surplus property."

But USPS spokesperson Polly Gibbs said a transfer of property to a municipality is not so simple. In fact, USPS does not transfer properties to the GSA's surplus property list at all.

USPS must follow a litany of criteria laid out by Congress when identifying locations for disposal, and that does not include closing a facility at a city's request, Gibbs said. Once locations are closed, the agency has two options — hold vacant properties or sell them through a competitive bid process, Gibbs said.

"Typically, when we list a property for sale, it's through a competitive bid process by all interested parties — government agencies, businesses and individuals," Gibbs said. "What we need to get is the fair market value. The sale of our property goes to our bottom line."

Although the Cleveland Street post office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, there is no federal law requiring USPS ensure protection of historic buildings after a sale.

The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommends USPS sell historic buildings with legally binding covenants requiring the new owners protect the building long term, but such an agreement is not required by law.

If a building is sold without a covenant, federal guidelines only require USPS "take measures to mitigate harm," but that could simply mean taking photographs or salvaging bricks before demolition, according to Reid Nelson, director of the office of federal agency programs for ACHP.

Polglaze said it is worth investigating other strategies to acquire the property, valued at $2.1 million by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, in light of years of cuts to post offices across the country and inevitable closures in the future.

The rise of email, online shopping and online bill pay has drastically cut the use of first-class mail, contributing to the USPS's 2014 fiscal year net loss of $5.5 billion.

USPS has shuttered hundreds of locations and consolidated services at others since 2008 to combat the decline, including the closure of the Clearwater Beach office in 2012.

Polglaze said only one-fifth of the Cleveland Street building is being utilized, making it a vulnerable target for closure. He said in his plan to acquire the building, a priority would be working with USPS to identify another location downtown that is more efficient and cost effective so residents would not lose services.

In its rebirth, he envisions a restaurant using the historic building's basement as a wine cellar, the rooftop balcony as a desert bar or a variety of other uses that complement the signature architecture.

"It's a perfect candidate for adaptive reuse," Polglaze said. "Eventually, the Post Office will come to a conclusion on that building for the pure and simple fact they only use one floor of that building, and there's so much space in there. ... I can't think of a worse scenario than for them to vacate and leave that building and let it deteriorate."

City council members Monday, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, voted 3-2 to direct staff to draft an endorsement for repurposing the building, which they will vote on Nov. 30. Mayor George Cretekos and council member Bill Jonson voted against the plan.

Cretekos said it would be unwise to offer up a post office for closure without a guarantee USPS would open an alternate location downtown.

"If the Post Office wants to come to us and say, 'Hey, we have identified a site for a new building in downtown Clearwater,' then let's go for it," he said. "But for us to suggest to the Post Office that we're willing to give up this post office without requiring them to build another facility in downtown Clearwater ... is not something that I could support."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

   
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