Sunlight glints off the shiny red, yellow, and blue facade of the county's newest post office in one of its most rundown neighborhoods. Inside, however, the sun's bright rays fade onto the muted blues and grays of the tiled floor. Like the building itself, Fort Lauderdale's plan to spark revitalization of NW Seventh Avenue with a new post office is clear on the outside but murky on the inside.
Sure, the post office may attract bodies to this rundown area. And it may even encourage businesses to sprout along this four-lane thoroughfare. But this post office, unlike most, will not service the people who live around it. And this federal building, unlike most, was built with city grants -- more than a million dollars of which normally goes to pay for low-income housing, water and sewer improvements, and job creation in minority neighborhoods.
"To me it's just an awful misuse," says Janet Riley, an attorney with Legal Aid Service of Broward County, an agency that represents the poor. "You can take that million dollars and start businesses, help people in the community foster new businesses, provide more low-income housing. I wonder, is that [post office] the best use of the money?"
Fort Lauderdale politicians think so. They not only supported springing for the construction, they agreed to a 30-year lease with the U.S. Postal Service for about 50 percent less than the going annual-rental rate, says Mayor Jim Naugle. The city apparently did what it needed to do to convince the Postal Service to scoot off its former downtown home, a piece of prime real estate on the New River where the city wants to build its newest tourist-friendly development, the New World Aquarium.
"A million dollars is a lot of convincing," Riley quips.
Fort Lauderdale receives about $2.8 million a year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. About a million of that is dedicated each year to supporting single-family home construction in places like Dorsey Heights, just north of Broward Boulevard between NW Seventh Avenue and NW Fifteenth Avenue.
But over the past year, the city spent $1,159,276 of that grant money to help pay for construction of the U.S. post office at 400 NW Seventh Ave. and to clear the land and water underneath of chemical contaminants and underground fuel tanks. (The city borrowed the remaining $1,850,000 in construction costs from the Sunshine State Governmental Finance Commission, a state group that gives low-rate mortgages to governments.)
City officials insist that picking up the tab for a post office is a legitimate, appropriate use for community redevelopment grants because it will spur economic growth in an area that was not attractive to developers.
"I see it as a tremendously positive thing to have that as an anchor on that corridor," Naugle says. "Government has to invest where the public sector will not."
Naugle claims the city can use the post office as a selling point to attract other businesses such as a major grocery chain or drugstore. The city asked developers at least twice for ideas but didn't get the kinds of projects it had hoped for.
A few years ago, Milton Jones of Jones Development Corporation, a minority-owned firm in Fort Lauderdale, proposed a project for that property that would have included a post office and small-scale retail shops, but the city rejected it.
"The city elected to take it back and get into the development business itself," Jones says. "It was one of those city deals."
Although Naugle supports having the post office on NW Seventh Avenue, he criticized the negotiations that gave the U.S. Postal Service a "sweetheart deal."
"We got the shaft," Naugle says. "We gave them much too good of terms."
But the momentum behind getting Fort Lauderdale its own aquarium was too hot, and the U.S. Postal Service had to be convinced to move sooner rather than later. Fundraising for the aquarium could not begin until a location was chosen. So city politicians picked the post office property, and suddenly this local downtown redevelopment issue became a political movement that called upon the powers in Washington for help.
U.S. Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Jr., a former Fort Lauderdale commissioner, provided the clout.
"Shaw worked real hard to get that post office moved," says Sherri Kimbel, executive director of the New World Aquarium. "It took somebody in Washington to nudge the post office."
It also took a few carrots, including an offer to foot the $3 million construction bill for a brand-new, 24,000-square-foot building. "We wanted the post office moved from the old site and there was ten years left on the lease," says Chuck Adams, the city's redevelopment services director. "That was part of the arrangement made to get the post office to move to that site."
The building of new post offices is usually handled by the federal government. It will acquire a piece of property, either through purchase or lease; ask for construction bids; and pay for construction from its own revenues. Or the post office will move into an existing building, as it did on New River, and convert it for postal use, again at its own expense.
But the Postal Service wasn't planning to move. Although workers were cramped and the station was outdated, the New River lease was good until 2004.
"The New River branch was not high on the list of facilities to be relocated," says Rick Sullivan, USPS customer relations coordinator. "We had a building and deliveries were being made. The priority for new facilities has been out west."
With good lease terms and promises of a new, free building, the U.S. Postal Service couldn't refuse. The city, however, still had to get approval to use land previously bought with CDBG money for a post office. HUD originally said "no" in 1991 after rejecting the city's method of determining how many low- and moderate-income people would be impacted. The city drew a circle on a map, but HUD wanted a more realistic outline of neighborhoods. CDBG money is designed to help low- and moderate-income communities develop decent housing and expand economic opportunities. Grant guidelines explicitly state that CDBG money cannot be used on buildings for the general conduct of government.
The city persisted and in July 1994 had created a different mathematical approach that combined ZIP codes with neighborhood boundaries and proved that more than 50 percent of the people living around the post office had low or moderate incomes.
"This represents a compromise approach, which, coupled with appropriate support from other government entities, may be accepted by HUD," an internal memo to City Manager George Hanbury says.
Less than a month later, HUD said "yes."
"Ultimately HUD came around, regulations changed, our analysis was reviewed, and we met their criteria," Adams says. And the nudge from Congressman Shaw? "He [Shaw] was really the starting point. The city wasn't getting anywhere on its own."
When Riley learned in May of the diversion of more than $1 million from programs for the poor to pay for construction of a federal building, she complained to the city and HUD.
"I don't see how this helps the target area," Riley says. "What other needs did that area have that should have had priority over a post office? I'm thinking a lot."
That's true. The city has spent more than $1.5 million in that area over the past three years in street and drainage improvements, landscaping, and support for new single-family homes in the way of mortgage down payments and land.
"Of course you could always fund a project," says Bob Wojcik, a planner with the city's community development division. "You can always find a project that needs money, because there are always more projects than there's money for."
Through its annual review, HUD is looking at how the city spent its recent installments of CDBG money, says Marlene Kocher, a HUD spokeswoman in Coral Gables.
"We are aware that CDBG funds may have been spent on the post office," Kocher says. "We have not made any determination of whether it's improper or not. The post office is kind of a hard animal to define."
This post office, while it may be convenient for the low- and moderate-income people who live nearby, will not service northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods. Mail carriers for these neighborhoods operate out of the North Andrews Avenue station. The new post office will continue to serve the same ZIP codes as before -- 33301 (downtown), 33302 (post office boxes), and 33394 (a downtown skyscraper).
"That post office is for downtown, it's not for us," says Al Calloway, the third vice president of the NAACP. "It will not service the black community."
Carlton Moore, the black commissioner who represents the area, says it shouldn't matter why or how the post office landed on NW Seventh Avenue.
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"Who cares?" he questions. "You cannot tell me that having that building there is not good for economic development in that community. They finally feel proud of public investment in their community."
Despite the deals that were cut, Shaw says both the Postal Service and the city won.
"The post office may have gotten a sweetheart deal, but the city got back a very valuable piece of riverfront property," Shaw says. "You've got to balance the two."
Meanwhile the third player in that deal, the mostly black neighborhoods around the new post office, wait for this economic redevelopment spark to catch fire.