Reps. Blumenauer and Wu spar over Pioneer Courthouse renovation

A rare public fight broke out last week between Reps. Earl Blumenauer and David Wu over renovation of the Pioneer Courthouse, downtown Portland's architectural icon.

In short, Blumenauer was trying to derail efforts to evict the post office from the courthouse and add five parking spaces in its basement. Wu put a stop to his plan.

The dispute is unusual in that it involves not just members of the same party but from the same state and the same city. Most of the time Oregon's congressional Democrats wear a unified public face in public. But Blumenauer and Wu are known for having a 'longtime minimal high regard for each other,' said a congressional aide who works for neither Wu nor Blumenauer.

The 128-year-old courthouse, home to three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, closed this spring in preparation for seismic retrofitting and other upgrades.

The plan drafted by the General Services Administration, owner of the building, calls for evicting the post office and adding five parking spaces in the basement. The post office branch served about 1,500 customers daily, making it Oregon's most profitable post office, on a per-capita basis.

Neither Wu nor Blumenauer would comment on the disagreement. The account of what happened comes from government officials involved in the project.

Blumenauer, whose district lies east of the Willamette River, has been involved in the courthouse issue for more than a year. Last week, he tried to cut off all of the project's funding and then attempted to get approval to form a special committee to take another look at GSA's plans.

But Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio, chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, then went to Wu. Since the courthouse is in Wu's district, not Blumenauer's, he asked Wu what he thought of the project.

Wu told LaTourette he opposed Blumenauer's efforts and supports the renovation proposal designed by GSA and approved by the federal judges. LaTourette then killed Blumenauer's efforts.

Wu's view wins

Wu's press secretary, Cameron Johnson, said Wu 'supports the project as it currently stands. He worked in the Pioneer Courthouse while he was clerking for a federal judge and he feels strongly about the building, about preserving its integrity.'

Mary Catherine Lamb, one of the local opponents of the parking spaces and the post office eviction, said Wu has been 'shockingly unresponsive to citizens clamoring to know his opinion on the matter before it appeared to be a done deal. He never returned calls, didn't reply to any of our letters. He's just taking the side of the judges without worrying about his constituency.'

'It was a shocker to us,' a Blumenauer aide in Washington, D.C., said of Wu's action.

When dealing with federal facilities, Congress often defers to the member who represents the facility. It's not common, but not unheard of either, for members to get involved in federal facilities outside their own districts. So Blumenauer's involvement in the courthouse project wasn't without precedence.

He also set out this summer on a series of community meetings looking at Portland issues. The meetings, being held throughout the city, not just inside his 3rd Congressional District, will help him decide whether to run for mayor. He expects to announce his decision sometime after Labor Day.

Blumenauer's special committee would have been headed by Neil Goldschmidt, the former Oregon governor and former Portland mayor, the Blumenauer aide said, adding that 'the GSA was going to be bound by the recommendation of the study committee on the post office and the garage.'

Blumenauer and Wu had not talked about the citizens' committee proposal, Johnson said, although 'there was some discussion at the staff level; we never signed off on it.'

More debate to come

Johnson said Blumenauer's proposal would have had 'the federal government stepping in from Washington, D.C., and putting this project further on hold. Congress doesn't see the need to do that.' All the federal judges had signed off on the project, he said, 'and there's broad consensus that (the GSA project) is not going to hurt the historic integrity of the building.'

In May, preservation groups and the GSA signed a memorandum of agreement on the project. The agreement provides for further discussions about parking spaces and the post office, but decisions still lie with the GSA.

Blumenauer, who helped secure the $16.6 million appropriation for seismic refit and historic renovation of the building, had argued that the GSA was exceeding the scope of the project by evicting the post office and adding underground parking.

Lamb and other opponents to the GSA plan say the public needs a post office there as a way to connect with one of the community's most revered buildings. '(It's) one of the few remaining spaces in Portland where people can conduct everyday business and feel a sense of continuity with Portland's past,' she said.

Lamb said the support for keeping the post office downtown and the building intact was widespread among politicians as well as people who work, live and shop there.

'I would like to know who Wu is speaking for when he claims this is the best thing for downtown Portland,' Lamb said. 'I've never been involved in such a popular cause.'

The courthouse rehabilitation is expected to begin this fall and take two years. A new site for the post office hasn't been chosen yet.

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. and Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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