Richard Neutra“No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” – Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

This summer there has been hot public debate in my community about the future of a medical office building. It’s not just any office building. It’s been deemed as having historical significance because it was designed in 1963 by Richard Neutra, one of modernism’s most important architects.

The building’s owner had submitted permits for a new building project on the site which meant the Mariners Medical Arts Center was destined for the wrecking ball:

But after local architects and community members protested the project, city officials looked into documents referencing the building and new construction. After doing so, they decided to put a suspension on the building permit.

They cited the California Environmental Quality Act that requires a study to determine environmental effects. Historical significance (due to its noted architect) is included in this category.

Architecturally speaking, the building is spectacular and representative of the pure, clean look of the period when it comes to design and construction. That said, the building in its current state is a mess. It’s still in use, but in dire need of some TLC.

So what does this have to do with money? Well, quite a bit. The building owners can’t do what they want with their building. Yet at the same time, it’s a shame that a piece of history will be destroyed if they’re allowed to follow through on their project.

What is the balance between personal choice, property rights and all the good that architectural preservation represents?

Let me use a different scenario to make a similar point. Remember when Bill here questioned government regulation as it relates to consumers being required to switch from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs):

As a gay man, I’m very sensitive to government attempts to micromanage my life. I don’t want the government telling me how I should live – and that includes who I can sleep with, what sex toys I can buy, what goals I can save for, and what light bulbs I can use. I want the freedom to make my own choices, and I want to let other people make their own. Light bulb laws are a heavy-handed way of achieving a very narrow goal, and they remove individual choice and values from the equation. The cultural cost of light bulb laws is that they reinforce the idea that it’s ok for the government to make personal decisions for us.

On another post I asked him how we balance the reach of government with rules. Should there be one standard for business and another when it applies to our personal freedom of choice? He replied:

As a libertarian, I usually draw a line based on property rights. The basic principle is that an individual should be able to do what he wants with his own property, on his own property, so long as he does not infringe on the property of others in so doing. As applied to my Light Bulb Laws post, this means that if I’m not polluting with my incandescent bulbs, I should be able to use them. This was the also underlying principle for my argument that power generation should have cleanup costs built-in, because otherwise the pollution is a violation of property rights regardless of what kind of light bulb you’re using. If we all had to pay for our pollution in the first place, it would not only encourage use of CFLs, but it would make clean power more economically viable. That’s why I see the CFL laws as short-sighted and ultimately rather pointless – they do nothing about the million other ways to waste power, while restricting individual choice.

Here’s another example. Think back to the landscaping company that refused to perform work for a gay couple building a home in Houston. Do business owners have the right to choose to do business with anyone they like even if it is discriminatory?

I’m all for preserving personal choice. After all, personal freedom is one of the great things about this country. But it’s a tricky issue in my opinion… especially when restricting choice impacts our pocketbooks.

Bill concludes his light bulb post with this thought:

If we leave these decisions in the hands of consumers, we reinforce the notion that this is a country of individuals with different values, and that it’s ok for people to choose different approaches to solving problems. If we take these decisions away from individuals, we can look forward to the day when someone lobbies for a ban on tampons and wants to force women to use the Mooncup to reduce waste.

So what do you think? I’m looking for your views about property rights, rather than tampon use, but I welcome all comments below.