By Froma Harrop
VENICE, Calif. — This beach community is LA’s latest magnet for hip, cool and gentrification. Modest cottages currently sell for an immodest $2 million, even as homeless people, sprawled on nearby lawns, holler for handouts.
Not everyone here agrees on what constitutes change for the better, but there’s a certain unity of anger over the sale of Venice’s historic post office to producer Joel Silver (“The Matrix”).
The Spanish-style structure, built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, was a community hub and attraction. It is here that Orson Welles filmed the gloomy opening in “Touch of Evil.” The privatized landmark will soon re-emerge as the home of Silver Pictures.
The U.S. Postal Service’s bizarre decision to sell beloved old buildings to raise quick cash has created angst across the country. A 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was razed and replaced by a Walgreens (which, ironically, sells stamps). In New York, the fight’s still on over plans to sell the fabulous Bronx General Post Office, a fixture for close to 80 years.
Many such battles are clustered in California’s choicer real estate markets. Santa Monica’s 1938 post office recently closed. And locals are still trying to stop sales in La Jolla and Berkeley.
“It’s totally a real estate thing,” Steve Hutkins, a New York University professor who runs the “Save the Post Office” blog, told me. “Scavengers are exploiting situations to grab trophy buildings from the public realm.”
Interestingly, the Postal Service hired the commercial real estate firm CBRE to do the sales. Its chairman happens to be the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat. Critics say these buildings are being sold for below assessed value to connected business interests.
The U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog, has already issued two audit reports criticizing CBRE’s handling of sales. And the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has called for halting them.
Folks in Venice seem unimpressed by Silver’s contention that he is blessing the neighborhood with Hollywood glamour and 25 jobs.
“We hate Silver and his studios,” Greta Cobar, a Venice resident and high-school teacher, told me. “He is currently trying to develop and gentrify the area surrounding his studio, which would eliminate the ‘coolness’ and ‘hipness’ that brought him here in the first place.”
Venetians don’t agree on much, Cobar said, but on this, “people who could not stand being in the same room all of a sudden started working together.”
An added thorn has been the fate of the building’s glorious Depression-era mural, “Story of Venice.” Law requires property holders to give the public access to such artwork, which the public still owns. Silver is offering six days a year by appointment only.
The “process” for closing post offices supposedly gives people time to comment. The Postal Service said that did not apply to Venice because, actually, it was not “closing” a post office but “relocating” to another place nearby. Yes, the public may now use its gruesome sterile storefront down the street, complete with a photograph of the mural.
The Postal Service says it is broke and needs to sell the buildings for the money. But what would $200 million from the sale of real estate do for an agency with an annual budget of $65 billion?
The fiercest pocket of resistance remains Berkeley, where protesters camped out on the steps of their 1914 Beaux Arts post office for 33 days. The city has rezoned the area to restrict use of the building.
Good luck to them. But as Orson Welles said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.