With 38,000 postal facilities in operation, the United States Postal Service (USPS) owns some of the nation's most desirable real estate in premium downtown locations. At the same time, many postal facilities have a surplus of space because of improving technology, a Congressional mandate to increase efficiency, and greater competition from e-mail and private package carriers.

The existence of under-used postal facilities coincides with the desire of local officials throughout the country to aid economic revitalization in their downtown business districts. The USPS is willing to consider new and additional uses from communities with post offices that have room to spare — as long as the new use costs the agency nothing and produces a new post office of equal size.

In Honolulu, the USPS worked with city and state officials to bring in a private developer to renovate a historic 160,000-square-foot building in which the post office took up only 30,000 square feet. The USPS got a new 30,000-square-foot facility — at no cost to federal taxpayers — while the balance of the property was converted into office space for the state.

In Orlando, Fla., city officials invested “seed money” to create a public-private partnership to renovate an aging three-story USPS facility. Two vacant floors upstairs were converted into office space, while the ground floor post office was made into a modern new facility. The project kept the post office downtown, a key part of Orlando's plan to attract new residential development in its urban core. And the city's seed money was paid back by the developer.

In neighboring Winter Park, Fla., city officials are collaborating with the USPS to turn a 1960s-era structure into a mixed-used project that will include retail shops, apartments and a modern post office. The new facility will be blended into a long-held plan to enhance neighboring Park Avenue, a posh retail shopping district. Similar postal renovation/economic development projects also have been undertaken in Waco, Texas; Lynchburg, Va.; and New Brunswick, N.J.

The key in each case is that local officials realized the potential of an under-used post office and initiated re-development discussions with the USPS. “We view ourselves as members of the community, and we want to cooperate,” says David Eales, manager of Realty Asset Services for the USPS in Arlington, Va. “We are happy to work with cities — as long as we end up whole.”

Municipal officials who want to explore expanded uses for local post office facilities can begin with a USPS “Co-Creative Template,” which has guided the process of most postal facility make-overs. The template begins with an “idea-making” step that helps in brainstorming redevelopment possibilities and forms a set of guiding principles for meeting community goals.

Establishing an initial set of principles is a must, says Larry Adams, author of the template and a principal at ACi, a Winter Park-based real estate advisory firm that consults with the USPS on re-development projects. “Post offices are an asset to community values and symbols of community life,” Adams says. “The economic benefits of re-developing an under-utilized postal facility can be a powerful incentive to local officials. But the role of a post office as a community gathering place has to remain at the top of the list. Otherwise, the project just won't work.”

Winter Park, Fla.-based Joe Kilsheimer is a writer and a former reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.