Meet Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Congress' Historic Preservation Advocate
Rep. Earl Blumenauer is a lifelong resident of Portland, Oregon, and has represented the state’s 3rd district in the United States House of Representatives since 1996. He is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, co-chair of the bipartisan Historic Preservation Caucus, and champion of the Federal Historic Tax Credit. We spoke with Blumenauer about his work and why preservation matters to him.
The National Trust aims to “Tell the Full American Story” through preservation. Do you agree that this is important?
Historic preservation helps people to connect with their history and how our society developed, for good or ill. In some instances, periods of history are contentious and controversial, but the more people can see history and understand how people lived, how communities developed, and who built them—including enslaved people—it equips us to see how we might go forward. I love the fact that there is work happening to broaden historic preservation and focus on the lives of the entire society. It is a more interesting picture, a richer, more accurate and useful picture.
Why are historic tax credits important?
The Federal Historic Tax Credit (HTC) enables us to level the playing field in terms of economic incentives. Too often a developer’s first instinct is to wipe the slate clean, to bulldoze and remove and start over. Sometimes there are added costs associated with doing historic preservation. While I believe that investment is justified, HTCs make it easier for businesses to make that decision.
When you look back comprehensively at successful HTC projects over a period of 25 or 30 years, there is more revenue generated for state, local, and federal governments than otherwise would be the case. Rehabbed historic buildings also generate more foot traffic and business opportunities, so while there is a modest subsidy, HTC investments have a very dramatic ripple effect in that they generate tax revenue and enrich communities in terms of culture and history.
Tell us about the House’s Historic Preservation Caucus.
It is very important to have broader congressional awareness of the merits of historic preservation. The work of the bipartisan caucus allows us to showcase projects that make a big difference and to illustrate that this is national in scope. Historic preservation happens in every state of the Union, and at a time when we are concerned with the carbon footprint of new construction, with the economy being hollowed out, and an uncertain future for middle-class jobs, looking at preservation opportunities is extraordinarily significant.
What is your favorite historic place?
My favorite building in Washington, D.C., and one of my favorites on the planet is the Library of Congress [Thomas Jefferson Building], completed in 1897 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It includes beautiful murals and mosaics. The 1997 restoration makes it, in my opinion, the capital’s crown jewel.
How can historic preservation become more widely adopted?
There is definitely a balance that needs to be struck, because we are having a housing crisis in most American cities. So how do we integrate the demands of the future with the opportunities of the present and respect for the past? We also need to consider [redevelopment] opportunities in a way that respects differences, that is more inclusive, and that ensures affordability. Done right, carefully planned, with good design, we can accommodate it all.
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