You may remember a situation I discussed in the January, 2008, Real Estate Law Update involving the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C. The D.C. Preservation League and other like-minded organizations have been trying to prevent the Church from obtaining a permit to demolish the Church’s building. The preservationist organizations contend that the building should be preserved as a landmark because it is a significant example of a particular, and now rare, architectural style. You can see it for yourself on the internet at www.dcpreservation.org/thirdchurch.html.
The latest event in the Church’s eighteen (!) year struggle to control the fate of its own property is a decision by the director of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Planning, who is also designated as the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, that the Church may proceed with demolition of its building (after obtaining the necessary “raze permit,” of course, the issuance of which apparently requires a separate hearing under city rules). If you want to see the 29 page decision by the Mayor’s Agent, it’s posted at www.committeeof100.net.
The comments by some of the preservation advocates reveal what could be described as a rather cavalier attitude toward the interests of the property owner. The preservation advocates seem, in fact, to be focused on arguing with the Church about whether or not the Church could find some other use for its building. The Church wants to demolish the building because it no longer suits the Church’s needs.
The director of the Preservation League was quoted as saying something to the effect that you can’t tear down a building two blocks from the White House and leave an empty lot. Really? Even if the building no longer suits the needs of the owner, the owner is stuck with it just because it’s near a prominent government building?
Let’s do a thought experiment here. Suppose that I own the land with this “Brutalist” (that’s the name of the architectural style) building on it. The building is no longer useful for my purposes. It is, however, in a highly desirable area, meaning that the land is very valuable. Let’s also suppose that you want the building for your own purposes. Would it be rational for me to knock down the building and leave the lot vacant? No, my rational choices would be to either demolish the building and build a new one in its place, or sell the land with the building to you.
The preservation advocates want to add a third outcome, one that furthers their interests at my expense: find fault with my decision that my building is no longer useful to me, as a means to force me to leave the building in place for their purposes, i.e. because they like to look at it (or think it’s important to keep it, for whatever reason).
Let’s go back to my preservation example using the Ford Pinto. Remember, the one where I said let’s pretend that I have the last existing Ford Pinto? Let’s further imagine that I can no longer use it, perhaps because it no longer runs, or perhaps because I have decided that it is an unsafe death trap. You, however, do not want the world to be deprived of this historical artifact, or maybe you just like to look at it. Would you rationally expect that I would keep it, or should be forced to keep it, displayed in my driveway because you think it should be preserved?
The question answers itself. If you really want to preserve it, you’ll buy the Pinto from me and display it in your driveway.
Why should a building be any different? If you want to preserve it, buy the property from me. I’ll take the money you pay me and go build a building that suits my needs somewhere else. You get to keep the building you like and admire its beauty, or architectural significance, or whatever it is that makes you want to keep it. Everyone’s happy, right?