Postal Service Air Rights Outreach a Dead Letter Effort

Photo by Scott Stiffler After successful 2013 efforts by the community to save Old Chelsea Station, the historic facility may once again be in danger.
Photo by Scott Stiffler
After successful 2013 efforts by the community to save Old Chelsea Station, the historic facility may once again be in danger.

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  After spending much of 2013 involved in ultimately successful efforts to save Old Chelsea Station Post Office (on 18th St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.), community groups and elected officials were unpleasantly surprised to learn, last week, that the United States Postal Service (USPS) is once again considering the sale of air rights as well as portions of the historic building.

Save Chelsea first heard about the sale when they received a letter two weeks ago, said Paul Groncki, the organization’s treasurer.

Dated Nov. 5, the letter states that Save Chelsea, preservation groups and the Old Chelsea Station manager were notified of the possible sale in an Aug. 14 letter.

“We never got that letter,” said Groncki in a phone interview. “So this was really the first time that we’re getting real information about them actually selling the air rights.”

Groncki said the distribution lists of both letters were interesting, as it did not include Community Board 4 (CB4) or elected officials. CB4 chairperson Christine Berthet said in an email that the board was not informed.

“If you look at the distribution list, we were the only local organization on it and we never even got it,” he said.

In the Nov. 5 letter, the USPS states that a letter announcing the sale was placed in the post office lobby.

A letter dated Nov. 26 was posted at the Old Chelsea station, which states that the USPS “is considering the sale of portions of its property at 217 West 18th St…together with associated air rights.”

The USPS also states in the Nov. 5 letter that “the consulting parties and the public were provided with a 30 day period to review and comment” and that neither “provided any comments or views on the undertaking or the finding of the USPS.”

Chelsea Now asked a postal service spokesperson if a letter was placed in the lobby before the Nov. 26 missive, but did not receive an answer by press time. It is unclear whether a letter was placed in the lobby of the Old Chelsea Station before the Nov. 5 letter, which states that there has been no public comment.

Connie Chirichello, USPS Corporate Communications representative for New York City and Long Island, said in an email that the USPS would consider public comments and that several “government officials were notified with the option for their input as well” on Nov. 26.

She declined to specify which government officials.

During a Dec. 3 phone call to Chelsea Now, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman said that the lack of notification was “outrageous” and spoke to a larger “disturbing pattern,” as the community also wasn’t told about last year’s possible sale of Old Chelsea Station.

“This is a federal agency that seems to have disregard and even contempt, I would suggest, for the local community because they have kept it in the dark about the disposition of this property,” said Hoylman. “The post office is trying to do this without any consultation from the community and we’re, as a result, going to be pushing back hard.”

He is very concerned about a possible sale as there are no details available.

Groncki said that Save Chelsea would like to have more time to comment on the possible sale.

“We didn’t have a chance to comment on the first round,” he said. “More time is definitely needed for the community to respond to this. We didn’t know about it.”

Lesley Doyel, co-president of Save Chelsea, said “The lack of transparency is the biggest issue for us. Why should we trust them?”

Doyel said in a phone interview that this was the first that anybody in Chelsea had heard about the sale and she didn’t know why her organization didn’t get the Aug. 14 letter.

“Their outreach has been scant,” said Doyel. “[The sale] bears a lot more scrutiny. Even if this is the best thing coming down the pike, there needs to be a public hearing.”

The lack of notification is not surprising, said Steve Hutkins, a New York University professor who edits a website he started three and a half years ago, savethepostoffice.com. He has been closely studying the sale of publicly owned post offices and he said that the postal service tends to do the minimal when it comes to informing the public.

“This typically happens that people get caught by surprise,” said Hutkins in a phone interview. “They find out that there’s very little time to respond [and] the avenues of comment are often limited.”

Councilmember Corey Johnson said in an email that he first learned of the sale when residents started contacting his office last week.

“I understand the USPS is operating under hard financial times, but it is absolutely imperative that any sale of the air rights is done in a transparent way that includes public participation at the onset of this process,” he said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case here, which is concerning.”

He said moving forward there should be full disclosure from the USPS about the possible air rights sale to CB4, Chelsea residents, other elected officials and his office.

“The Old Chelsea Post Office is an asset to the community, and we want to make sure that postal services are not relocated from this facility,” he said.

When the USPS was considering the sale of the Old Chelsea Station, several members of the community, including CB4, elected officials and organizations such as Save Chelsea suggested selling the air rights instead.

The selling of the air rights is preferable to selling the station, said Doyel, and many supported the idea.

“On the face of it, it looks like a good idea,” she said. “It is a little more sinister than it appears at face value.”

The clock is now running, she said, and Doyel hopes that elected officials can insist on a public meeting. The post office should make a presentation to the community about the proposed sale.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried in an email that “The US Postal Service has repeated its arrogant treatment of the community and its elected officials in not notifying us of this the possible proposal. I am opposed to the sale of the air rights without community input, review, and support for the size and use of the new development. In addition, postal services should remain on the ground floor.”

Chirichello said that at this time, there is not a potential buyer and that the sale is only in the consideration phase.

“This is deja vu all over again,” said Doyel. “This is what happened the last time.”

People wishing to comment on the possible sale have until Dec. 11. Letters should be sent to: Joseph J. Mulvey | U. S. Postal Service | 2 Congress Street, Room 8 | Milford, MA 01757.