Post office property
There are two housing proposals by the same developer for the Los Gatos USPS distribution hub. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

—motto associated with the United States Postal Service

But developers might?

Our little charming town of Los Gatos has had a post office since 1864. But a few decades ago, “You’ve got mail!” (email) began to replace most snail mail. Between 1995 and 2013, single-piece first class mail dropped by 61 percent. Who needed stamps when one could send an electronic message? Thankfully, the United States Postal Service started working with Amazon, which basically saved the agency (which was first established in 1775).

To long-time locals, businessowners, notable homeless and various mountain folk, our post office has been a reassuring presence over the years. It is not a chore to go to the post office. It is a social event. Our post office is one of the beats of the heart we call our beloved downtown. There’s row upon row of shiny brass boxes, with dials and little windows holding that oh-so-rare and treasured snail mail. It’s a place to mail out gifts and products and say hi to a neighbor.

Dinah Cotton
Dinah Cotton. (Submitted)

According to the counter clerk I spoke with Tuesday morning, there are approximately 1,400 mail boxes inside. Many local businesses run their companies through their P.O. boxes. Being able to dash off to ship out products has helped many survive otherwise trying times. Demolishing the post office would be an economic hardship for many of them. There’s even a desk area where you can sit to address a thoughtful card.

It’s no wonder so many Los Gatans (not to be confused with curmudgeons)—some who’ve been getting their mail there for 45+ years—are opposed to, and fearful of, the demolition of the post office. The proposed seven-story mega building (under the “Builder’s Remedy” rules) would dwarf—and possibly put stress onto—the majestic redwoods in Town Center Plaza Park. It would also hide our view of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The breeze that comes from the Pacific would no longer continue through the park.

As a loyal and nature-loving Los Gatan, I do pay attention to what’s happening around town. I enjoy speaking with all sorts of folks, and recently a “reliable source” informed me that the northern spotted owl has been seen in the area. Has anyone else noticed Strix occidentalis caurina, which in 2016 was listed as protected by the California Fish and Game Commission? Who knows, maybe a photograph of one could help protect the post office. After all, Builder’s Remedy projects are not exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.

So, what is the Builder’s Remedy? Essentially, under the Housing Accountability Act, if a municipality does not have a certified housing element, a local jurisdiction can’t deny a residential development, even if it doesn’t follow local planning guidelines—as long as at least 20% of the homes are low-income or all are moderate-income units. And Los Gatos still does not have such a plan in-place.

I wanted to see the plans for the Builder’s Remedy project at the post office site for myself, so I headed over to the Town’s Planning Department to take a look. Planners have been confined to a strict “no comment” policy on everything. (Only the mayor may comment, and I did later get a quick call back from Town Manager Laurel Prevetti.) As plans are now computerized it was fairly easy to bring up architect Kurt Anderson’s firm’s drawings.

Postal workers in action. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

I muddled through the digital documents and I actually thought the designs looked pretty good. I figured, if I gave Anderson a call, I might learn more. He picked up on the third ring. A very good sign. Anderson designs with an eye to the future and believes that architecture should fit with the times. Today, construction materials are so advanced, and computerized renderings have become so efficient that we can produce amazing structures that might just add to the flavor of our town. He told me the post office project would “enhance” the downtown, He also said it would fit in with the active lifestyles—of trail riding, surfing and dog walking—that many locals enjoy. (I was particularly interested in the penthouse!) He promised to refer me to Mike LaBarbera, the property owner.

True to his word, he passed on my number and LaBarbera gave me a shout the very next morning, from where he was teeing-off down at the Pebble Beach links. My neighbor had told me there were now two separate plans for the post office site, and I was curious about their second submission for four-story townhomes. The answer is: they’re planning on concentrating on the seven-story structure for now, but they want to keep their options open. As one might imagine, arranging the financing for this massive project takes time and foresight—this is what developers do.

LaBarbera has been renting the parcel to USPS for three decades, and the lease is coming due. I learned that the effort here is to bring our town up to the times. LaBarbera sees Los Gatos as a very happening town (we all know that already—and want to keep it that way). “We need very well-considered growth,” he told me. This condominium complex will add at least 100 downtown residents. These are folks who will shop and go out to eat, bringing additional revenue to our town.

Many folks have raised families here and have known each other for a long time. There is a village-type feeling. Yet, us fellow Los Gatans, we must get with the times or get left behind. For example, take a walk down Big Basin Way in Saratoga. You will find vacant storefronts and closed restaurants. There has got to be compromise on both sides. Maybe build residences behind our post office? As a former resident of Hawaii, I appreciate the famous rule on Kauai written to say no building can be taller than the tallest palm tree. I, for one, would like to see a post office proposal that is not higher than the tallest redwood tree.

post office in Los Gatos
Los Gatos first got a post office in 1864. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

Here are some other ideas: Maybe, just maybe, the ground floor could look a little like our beloved Queen Anne architecture from the 1800s. It would be an architect’s challenge to incorporate the magical modern materials that are so low-maintenance into a rustic exterior. And the condominiums—or even townhomes—should contribute to our unique town feeling. It could be a place for our children to live. The residents could become part of our “walking culture,” bike on our world-class trails, eat at our many delicious restaurants, shop at our unique boutiques, and become the most wonderful type of person—a “Los Gatan.”

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