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Keeping Communities at the Center of the U.S. Postal Service

Feb 20, 2020

Guest blog by, Joseph Brancato, FAIA, NCARB, Co-Chairman and Regional Managing Principal, Gensler

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is one of the country’s oldest infrastructure and urban planning pillars. Across America, the post office was strategically built on main streets and near train stations where people frequented and traffic flowed. A moniker for mass communication, these hubs also provided physical space for community interaction. But with the rise of e-commerce and technology-driven communication replacing traditional mail the post office is becoming an underutilized, outdated building type. Shifting communication patterns have meant that the USPS is reducing the total number of its offices and routes and looking to privatize and sell many of its assets, in order to continue investing in its fleet.

Breathing value back into these buildings will require shifts in how we think about real estate assets: from new buildings, to adaptive reuse, from single-use to mixed-use, and from moving products to gathering people. The Gensler Research Institute looked at how shifting values and behaviors impact our local communities. Here are a few examples of how USPS facilities have been recently transformed into diverse, forward-thinking spaces.

The Post Office – Chicago, IL 

Turning Vacancy into a Vision

Gensler’s Old Post Office project in Chicago is a quintessential example of leveraging the authenticity of an iconic building once used for a single purpose into a world-class mixed-use commercial space. The 2.8 million square-foot building was vacated in 1997 and remained so for nearly 20 years. Today, its vast size—800 feet in length by 340 feet in width—can accommodate nearly 2,000 employees per floor for office space. Tenants such as Uber and Walgreens are moving in. The vision respects its landmark status and preserves historical details. This was accomplished by meticulously researching and documenting the original finishes, tiles, and repurposing equipment such as scales and mail chutes so that the former life of the building was not forgotten. The Postmaster-General’s suite was restored and a range of amenities were added to attract a new generation of tenants—such as a chic bar, bocce court, and gym featuring a boxing ring. On the 3.5-acre roof, landscaping will accent paddle tennis courts, basketball courts, and a jogging trail. It’s the harmony of design, past and future, that can transform a derelict post office into an economic engine for the city of Chicago.

The Farley Building – New York, NY

Creative Office Hub with a Blank Slate

Another massive repositioning, which also provides a blank slate is The Farley Building, the former 1912 James A. Farley Post Office in New York. Located directly across Ninth Ave from Penn Station, the iconic McKim, Mead and White building is being restored and offers 740,000 square feet of office space and 120,000 square feet of retail—in addition to direct building access to many train lines, Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak. Vornado, the developer, challenged the Gensler team to come up with a solution for the building’s interior. With large, open floor plates, slab heights at 17 feet, and column spacing of 40 feet, we envisioned tomorrow’s workplace with ample daylight and transparency throughout each floor. The sheer size of the building will allow multiple lobbies and private entry ways, in addition to branded experiences for each organization to take advantage of. Among the most attractive amenities will be the 70,000-square-foot landscaped roof terrace with a 6,000-square-foot glass pavilion. In a city with plenty of brand new commercial real estate and several significant historic buildings to choose from, this provides a rare and attractive opportunity to create a truly unique headquarters office.

Beverly Hills Post Office Repositioning – Beverly Hills, CA

Finding the Right Tenants

The Beverly Hills Post Office project made use of existing infrastructure to create a light and airy workplace ideal for the entertainment and communication industries, both prevalent in Los Angeles. The unique architecture of post offices is often characterized by high ceilings and wide-open floorplates. A mezzanine level was added and a rotunda stair rebuilt, along with new restaurant space on the ground level and the modernization of an on-site screening room. This redesign makes use of the building’s core features and offers present-day visitors with a collaborative, high energy space that encourages collaboration and serendipitous interaction, echoing what post offices once did.

What is the Future of USPS Real Estate?

With over 35,000 locations and 200 million square feet of real estate, the USPS can evolve

to once again be a focal point for communities by adapting its mission to its contemporary context. Twenty percent of millennials report that they still visit a post office at least once per week. Traditional postal services are needed less each year, but a myriad of community issues remain that could instead be prioritized. In the years to come, we can expect the USPS liquidating more and more real estate assets, creating modern neighborhood assets in the process. Through the power of design, former post offices can become vibrant office spaces, entertainment destinations, and community centers, all while staying true to the original intent of the USPS: connecting people. The future of USPS real estate is bright.

Business Communities reuse vacant buildings
Sonali Tare