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A Defining Moment to Re-vision the American City  

12-09-2015 17:35

A year and a half ago I was excited about the possibility of showcasing the work that many of my friends have done to make Portland one of the most livable communities in the country, turning around a city that was really going the wrong way a third of a century ago. The National Preservation Conference would be an opportunity for people in the preservation movement to come here and kick the tires, look at what we’re doing, and maybe get some ideas to help extend this movement across the country.

But then, in the last election, we had a devastating “property rights” ballot measure that puts into question the future of our land-planning process. We find that surveys still show that our citizens are committed to the goals, objectives, and outcomes of our land-use planning process, but somehow think the ballot measure won’t affect that. My draft speech changed because I thought I could use your energy, vision, and commitment to help people here who are trying to contend with the consequences of the ill defined, undefined future created by the ballot measure. And this would be relevant to all of you, because—make no mistake about it—what the forces of darkness have done here in Oregon may be coming to a town near you.

But in the course of the last month, I think all of our attention has been captured by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The images of destruction, misery, and chaos have laid bare issues that we’ve pushed aside for years. Among them, issues of race and poverty loom large. Katrina raised questions about our values, our priorities, our methodology, and our vision. What we have before us today is a defining moment in the struggle for American policies that promote livable communities.

Some people want to forget those images, hope for the best, and move on. But all the while, our oceans continue to rise, New Orleans continues to sink, and the Louisiana coastline is eroding at the rate of a football field every 30 seconds. Hurricanes Katrina and then Rita have driven home the point that there are real consequences to where and how we build.

We treat the Mississippi River as a machine, spending billions of dollars without a sense of priority, much less a vision for the future, and events have shown that in the absence of priorities and a vision for the future, spending billions does not accomplish much.

A Place at the Table for Preservation

As preservationists, you have developed the language and the techniques to show people that place matters. How a community looks and feels and works depends on that sense of place. You know that historic preservation is about more than saving some old buildings. It’s about knowing what to save and why it’s important. You know a community’s future is built on understanding its past; understanding our strengths—and even our mistakes —creates and preserves and enhances values.

What you are doing is pioneering and is of vital interest. Your skill at building unique partnerships and cost effective strategies is what led me to you when I first went to the Congress and thought the federal government should lead by example.

We could do much to promote livable communities if the federal government modeled the behavior we expect of the rest of America. The poster child for this idea was the U.S. Post Office, which has more than 37,000 branches across America. I wanted the Post Office to obey local land-use laws and zoning codes and respect their historic structures and locations. I introduced legislation to accomplish that purpose, but I found, typically, that the National Trust was there ahead of me. We formed a vital partnership in using this issue to protect these postal resources and to get the point across. It’s been a struggle to pass the bills in the post anthrax, post-9/11 environment, especially given the vagaries of postal reform. But because of our partnership, the provisions that protect postal facilities and the rules that they play by were passed in the House a couple of months ago as part of the Postal Reform Act, H.R. 22—important landmark legislation. The National Trust played a critical role in its passage.

Some Models for New Orleans

In the aftermath of Katrina, it’s time for us to think about what comes next in the rebuilding of New Orleans and other historic communities.

I know there is no shortage of ideas about what can be done now that will make a difference, including ideas from the National Trust. I deeply appreciate what the Trust has done on Capitol Hill, springing into action immediately, dealing with legislation and funding. It’s making a difference.

But we need to be thinking of the other parts of the job of rebuilding.

A very important idea has been proposed by Mercy Corps, a Portland-based emergency relief organization that usually works overseas. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I visited Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the great earthquake and tsunami last year. I saw in the tsunami region that Portland-based Mercy Corps had put 20,000 Indonesians to work in a matter of days, salvaging materials that could be used for rebuilding. Here in Portland, we have a wonderful organization and facility called the ReBuilding Center, where components of homes are salvaged from demolition and reused. By recycling this material, the ReBuilding Center provides jobs, keeps materials out of landfills, and reduces our need to log trees, mine metals, and burn fossil fuels.

Mercy Corps has been in New Orleans meeting with the mayor’s staff to talk about how the model of the ReBuilding Center could be used to put people to work salvaging materials from the historic structures. Even if the buildings can’t be salvaged as structures, there is still no excuse to lose any of those historic building materials and artifacts. We can put thousands of people to work tomorrow, saving their heritage and making it possible for these important historic elements to be recycled. I think we ought to be smart enough to figure out how to do that in New Orleans.

Portland is home to the first modern streetcar in the United States since World War II, a priority of mine 20 years ago when I joined the city council. We’ve had two million people ride the Portland streetcar last year. We found developers who sold their Mercedes to ride the streetcar; they think it’s a good idea. We have had approximately $1 billion of new development along the streetcar line since we broke ground; it’s been integrated into the urban fabric of both the historic warehouse district and the new South Waterfront district, where cranes are raising a thicket of new housing towers beside the restored banks of the Willamette River.

The Portland streetcar was modeled after the St. Charles streetcar line in New Orleans, the oldest continuously operating streetcar in America. What if the restoration of New Orleans was built upon a grand restoration of the streetcar system? New lines could be built, extending the system into those neighborhoods that will be reconstructed. The streetcar line would spur redevelopment, provide a more balanced transportation system, and be a practical symbol of hope in keeping with that city’s heritage.

Streetcars are not just of interest to New Orleans and Portland. Streetcar initiatives are underway in Charlotte, Little Rock, Memphis, Seattle, and Kenosha, Wis. Eighty-two cities have joined together in a national streetcar coalition. We were able to get a “Small Starts” provision in the last transportation bill, a provision that provides modest but important seed money for the construction of new transit systems. In the course of the last 120 years, urban America was largely built around streetcars and interurban electric systems. Let’s harness that potential, build the coalition, help revitalize New Orleans, and help preservationists revitalize neighborhoods that decades ago were built around the streetcar.

The National Trust has been on the frontline, helping people understand that the historic neighborhood school is a building block of a vital community. People all over the country are now working to make sure that the billions of dollars that will be spent on school construction are spent right, and that schools need not forsake historic neighborhoods. We shouldn’t abandon structures that can be revitalized for a fraction of the cost of new development, which chews up land and greenfields needlessly, when we can revitalize existing neighborhoods. Let’s make the pioneering work that you and others are doing around the country part of the federal effort to revitalize New Orleans and the other affected communities in the region.

Cautions and Warnings

I could go on and on with great ideas, and so could you. But we need to stop, catch our breath, and think about how we’re going to make it possible for this tremendous outpouring of concern and energy and money to be used right.

First, I think the federal government needs to establish its own principles of partnership for Katrina, both for the recovery and for incorporating the lessons learned, as well as the lessons that we should have learned.

  • The federal government must not use taxpayer money to put people, places, and property back into harm’s way.
  • Citizens should be directly engaged in the work of disaster recovery and mitigation at every step of the way.
  • Anybody who has watched television, listened to National Public Radio, or read any of the international press knows that we have to clarify the role of the federal government in disaster prevention, mitigation, and relief, starting with making FEMA functional again.
  • We must make the recovery process the model of transparency and of accountability.
  • Congress should also encourage, support, nudge— and in some cases demand— state and local responsibility for disaster prevention, mitigation, and recovery. Local governments do their citizens no favors by having lax building codes and zoning regulations that put their citizens in harm’s way.
  • The gusher of federal funds for restoration must be carefully invested in ways that incorporate disaster prevention, community preservation, and mitigation as key elements.
  • And last, but by no means least, we should make sure that wherever possible we harness the power of nature to defend against the forces of nature. One practical way to do this would be to create a public space from land that shouldn’t be redeveloped: wetlands that used to provide an important natural buffer for New Orleans. What better way to honor the victims of Katrina than to dedicate these wetlands as a memorial that will protect people in the future?

One thing I have learned during my 30 years in government is the limit of government power. The federal government is not equipped to dictate the terms of what goes back in those communities; establish principles, yes, but not to manage and direct the construction. Politicians need help in managing the inevitable pressures of recovery efforts.

You know too well that today’s political process is toxic and hopelessly partisan. We also have to talk about the elephant in the room that people don’t want to mention: corruption.

There are issues of integrity and responsibility and transparency that must be addressed, but it must be your crusade. You must hold elected leaders accountable and get us to focus on the big picture and the long term.

A Unique Opportunity for Re-visioning

You could help carry out an idea I’ve been mulling over: the world’s largest community planning event, drawing on some of the best minds and the most creative thinkers to discuss how New Orleans and all the communities in the Gulf could be rebuilt in ways that make them more livable, more economically secure, and safer in their natural settings. I’ve talked to numerous people who could be potential partners with the National Trust in this project about how we could involve a wide range of people through teleconferencing and C-Span broadcasting. We could have an opportunity for people in the affected area to log-in online and ask questions.

There is a coalition of the committed and the capable that could do this; it would benefit both the politicians and citizens. It would provide an opportunity for Americans to get the big picture, to help us see how this unfolds, to understand what’s possible— because we have only a moment. If we don’t act quickly, we will lose precious historic resources as well as the ability to resist the growing pressure to demolish the damaged structures we have left. We have a very narrow window before we lose our chance to act.

The Great London Fire of 1666 brought forth some fascinating designs for redevelopment. Within days of the fire, the esteemed architect Christopher Wren drew up a vision of a greater London— but the moment passed and the opportunity to redesign London was lost. After the rebuilding, London was better, more fire resistant, but the chance to make it an even finer city escaped. We should not allow that to happen now.

Regional visioning processes often fail for a lack of money to implement the results; they fail because we can’t get other regional partners to the table; they fail because the federal, state, and local governments won’t cooperate; they fail because there’s no sense of urgency. Well, let me tell you, none of these criteria apply in the area hit by Katrina. You’ve got people’s attention, it is urgent, and there will be money—amazing amounts of money.

For comparison purposes, the estimated value of all the urban development in the entire Portland metropolitan area—a region that has a slightly bigger population than New Orleans—is $148 billion. That is a lot of money to be sure, but less than the $200 to $300 billion in federal disaster relief currently being discussed in Washington. The amount of money is staggering and the potential of doing things with it—good or bad— is beyond belief.

But it’s not just about restoring the Gulf Region and getting those people back on their feet. I’m of the opinion that this is an opportunity for us to change the way that Washington operates. This is an opportunity to seize the moment that I bet all of you felt after 9/11. This is a chance to bring the country together, to unify, to have a government of unity, and to give people assignments and march forward. We didn’t quite do that after 9/11, but I think we’ve got a chance to do it now. Your good work, your willingness to be a part of this process, will not just make a difference for those people who have lost their homes and their communities. I’m convinced that it is an opportunity to heal the body politic as well.

I leave with you with a quotation from Isaiah chapter 58:12. The prophet Isaiah is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians:

Those from among you shall build up the old waste places; You shall rise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach; The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.

Editor’s note: On October 14, 2005, Oregon’s Measure 37 land use law was overturned by a county circuit court judge. This controversial measure, approved by 61 percent of the voters in November 2004, gave property owners the right to develop their property under the rules and regulations in effect at the time they acquired it, without regard for the community planning rules their neighbors live by. The judge ruled the measure unconstitutional because it favored longtime property owners over those who had purchased property more recently, and because it prohibited the Oregon legislature from exercising its authority to regulate for public welfare, health, or safety. Measure 37 opponents are now preparing to fight an appeal made to the Oregon Supreme Court, which will be heard January 10 in an expedited schedule.

Publication Date: Winter 2006


Author(s):Earl Blumenauer

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