Could cluster boxes be a solution for local post office challenges?
Regional meetings spark interest from local leaders as to feasibility of cluster boxes
Since February, a group of representatives from numerous Colorado mountain towns has been meeting with regional United States Postal Service representatives to try and tackle growing challenges with local post office locations. In these meetings, as municipalities air grievances and seek solutions, one option continues to come up: cluster boxes.
What are cluster boxes?
Cluster boxes are one form of “centralized delivery,” as defined in the Postal Service’s “Modes of Delivery” policy in its Postal Operations Manual.
Cluster box units are installed within neighborhoods or residential complexes as a freestanding mailbox configuration with multiple boxes and parcel compartments that can lock individually — similar to P.O. Boxes.
The Postal Service’s policy holds that, “centralized delivery is the preferred mode of delivery for all new residential and commercial developments” as well as for “new or extended business or residential delivery points.”
Within Eagle County, there are neighborhoods and developments that already have cluster box units. According to James Boxrud, Postal Service spokesperson for the Western Area of the United States, “the majority of Vail delivery is to centralized delivery boxes, which is delivered by letter carriers.”
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These Vail cluster boxes, he added, are serviced by six “city delivery routes.”
“Minturn, Avon, Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum do not have city delivery and for the majority of those municipalities they are serviced by P.O. Boxes,” Boxrud said. “Edwards and Gypsum have Highway Contract Routes out of their offices. (Highway Contract Routes) are routes serviced by suppliers (contractors) carrying mail over highways between designated points.”
For any additional communities, developments and residential complexes to build and receive delivery to a cluster box unit, the service and viability of such units is completely up to the discretion of the Postal Service.
“Any change in delivery mode goes to the Postmaster who then forwards the request to the district manager or his/her designee,” Boxrud said.
Within the Postal Service policy, however, there is no specific criteria outlined as to how or why a change in delivery would be approved or denied. Instead, it only stipulates that they are considered on a “case-by-case basis.”
As for Boxrud, he simply stated that “some very basics for mail delivery include paved and maintained roads, numbers on each home and centralized boxes at the end of (a) street.”
With some of the other challenges facing mountain post offices, the USPS has maintained that their own greatest challenge is consistent with other local businesses: staffing.
“Staffing has been and continues to be our biggest challenge. The cost of living and lack of affordable housing have been a large contributor not only for the Postal Service but for all employers,” Boxrud said to the Vail Daily in February. “The advent of the pandemic, the increase of consumer use of ordering necessities online, and the national employment challenges have exacerbated this for our mountain communities.”
It’s unknown to what extent staffing plays into the decisions on whether local post offices can serve cluster boxes, however, it seems plausible that staffing, if already a challenge, could be a factor in the decision.
Could they solve local problems?
According to multiple local leaders involved in these regional meetings with the Postal Service — including Amy Phillips from the town of Avon, Geoff Grimmer from the town of Eagle and Jeremy Rietmann from the town of Gypsum — the topic of cluster boxes have come up at these meetings as one possible solution.
“It’s probably one of a few creative ideas,” Grimmer said.
While home delivery has long been off the table for mountain communities, the local reliance on P.O. Boxes has paralleled the growth of the county’s population — particularly down valley — as well as the growth of e-commerce, creating a slew of concerns for residents.
For the post offices across Eagle County, these concerns include long waits, poor parking lot and traffic flow, an insufficient number of P.O. Boxes as well as concerns with the size of the post offices themselves.
“I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, I think our town grew from 1,500 to 3,000 to 6,000 and it’s been doubling every ten years since 1990 and then there’s just no way a post office that size can keep up,” Grimmer said. “So, it’s more circumstantial, but I think the worst thing you can do in government is to just ignore it and hope it goes away.”
The idea is that cluster boxes could reduce the amount of traffic seen at the post offices, therefore increasing the efficiency of mail delivery to local residents.
Grimmer added that cluster boxes are “acknowledged as being an interesting solution for Eagle because it would allow people to walk and get their mail and not be driving so many cars from homes to the post office and back.”
Grimmer inherited the Postal Service project from former town Mayor Anne McKibbin.
“I didn’t try to recreate the wheel, what I tried to do was just put additional pressure in support of her position,” Grimmer said, adding that McKibbin and her team had identified “cluster boxes as the No. 1 solution.”
Rietmann said that these boxes “are one element of a variety of approaches that need serious consideration from the postal service to improve mail services in Gypsum and in other area communities.”
The Gypsum Post Office, it’s worth noting received a space constraint study, which is one way the Postal Service evaluates the needs of specific locations. It was determined that it is indeed “space-constrained,” Rietmann said.
“The postal service’s real estate team has opened a process to identify a suitable site for the development of a new post office in Gypsum,” he added.
Phillips noted that one of the greatest challenges for mountain towns is the influx of seasonal employees and residents they see during ski season. Many of these employees, she said, are J1 visa holders — or international, temporary student workers. Not only might cluster boxes be more intuitive for these seasonal employees, but it would reduce the number of people reliant on the local post offices during the busiest months.
For cluster boxes, the regional meetings have resulted in one success story in Steamboat Springs. According to Phillips, at the first meeting in February, the representative from Steamboat said they had built cluster boxes at a new attainable housing rental property, but that when they went to get delivery to them, the Postal Service refused delivery to the boxes.
“By the second meeting, which was six weeks later, they were getting delivery,” Phillip said.
However, it’s hard to tell if Eagle County developments would have the same success. Phillips added that one factor is that Steamboat already has centralized delivery in some locations, unlike Avon and other Eagle County municipalities.
Phillips recounted that when The Piedmont apartment complex was built in Avon, it was originally designed with cluster boxes. However, “the USPS told them, ‘No we won’t deliver to it,’” she said.
Similarly, when the recently constructed Spring Creek Village apartments in Gypsum were being built, the developer considered adding cluster boxes.
Jeffery Spanel, vice president at Inter-Mountain Engineering, said that the group considered cluster boxes as a way to increase convenience for residents, take pressure off the post office and reduce traffic to the post office.
However, when they pursued it — offering a few locations around the site for cluster box units — they were turned down, Spanel said.
“Frankly, the postmaster wanted no part of it,” he said, adding that while he didn’t remember specific details around the denial, “it was a pretty short conversation; they just weren’t interested in pursuing it.”
Still, Phillips remains optimistic that these regional meetings could lead to more positive inroads on cluster boxes in the future.
“We haven’t tested it yet, but we have been told (by the USPS) that basically, ‘The next time you’re ready to do something, we’ll figure out how to deliver to it,’” Phillips said.
Specifically, Phillips said that the town is planning to put boxes somewhere in its upcoming community housing project at Swift Gulch. She also added that they could serve as solutions for other town-sponsored projects such as Buffalo Ridge and Eagle Bend.
“I think it’s a good solution,” she said. “Now, I’m still not anticipating smooth sailing; I think it’ll be an uphill battle. We have a reason for hope, but we still don’t have a process.”
Grimmer also expressed reason for hope on moving the needle on these long-held challenges with the post office.
“This is the most discussion we’ve had about this topic for as long as I’ve lived in town. Sometimes with these federal projects, success is more likely when there’s a coalition of interested parties and we have that right now with the ten mountain towns that are all working with Sen. Bennet’s office, so we’re really optimistic,” Grimmer said. “We just need to do a good job as a community of communicating with the Feds on what our needs are.”