| Tuesday, March 15, 2005
It's a tall order |
Santa Ana's referendum on a high-rise building
makes me wonder: Will Americans ever again clearly see the
importance of property rights?
Reading the official ballot arguments for and against
Measure A, the April 5 initiative that will determine whether
developer Michael Harrah will be allowed to build a 37-story
office building in downtown Santa Ana, I'm left wondering what
happened to the political IQ in this country. Neither side is
wrestling with the central issue at stake.
When faced with a potentially complex issue - should this
particular building be built or not? - it's best to start with
the fundamentals. The obvious first questions: Who owns the
land? Is the developer seeking city subsidies? Is the city
proposing to use eminent domain to help acquire the property
for the developer?
In fairness, we must also ask if there is some
significant nuisance to consider or mitigate, such as the
Disney Hall's heat-generating stainless-steel shell that is
requiring sandblasting to keep from cooking the residents of a
nearby building in downtown Los Angeles.
Go into a kindergarten classroom, and any kid will tell you
that he can draw a picture on his own desk if he owns the
paper and the crayons. Yet supposedly intelligent adults do
not even confront these basic ownership issues as they spend a
half-million bucks fighting over whether to allow a new
building or not.
Harrah owns the land. He isn't seeking subsidies; in fact,
he's one of the few developers who maintains an
entrepreneurial independent streak, rather than lobby City
Hall for favors. Eminent domain is not being used. Harrah is
paying nearly $13 million for surrounding street improvements
to deal with the additional traffic caused by his building.
That's a reasonable amount of mitigation.
End of story.
Do I like tall buildings? Yes, but that's irrelevant. Do I
like this particular design? It looks decent, but, again, a
nonissue. It's all about property rights, period. I
wholeheartedly support the project, regardless of my personal
opinion of it, just as I wholeheartedly support my neighbor's
exterior paint project even though I don't like the trim color
he chose. This used to be common thinking, but now everyone
wants to vote on everything anyone else might build.
Even supporters of Harrah aren't making the right case.
Consider the ballot arguments published on the Registrar of
Voters' Web site.
Why should Santa Ana residents vote "yes" on Measure A?
According to the influential crew that signed the ballot
argument (including the mayor, the president of the Chamber of
Commerce and the executive director of the High School for the
Arts), residents should vote "yes" so they can "make Santa Ana
Number One NOW." One Broadway Plaza "is the centerpiece of a
master plan to rebuild our downtown. ... One Broadway Plaza
will bring good paying construction jobs, which will be a big
boost to our local economy."
We're No. 1? What is this, a football game? And I've seen
good master plans, but mostly bad ones. Finally, while I'm all
for new construction jobs, I strongly oppose job-producing
developments if, say, they are built on property taken by
force by the city.
Opponents, including a councilwoman and various
neighborhood association representatives, are even dopier in
their opposition. "Santa Ana must have the right development
to create sustainable growth," they wrote. Sustainable growth,
by the way, is whatever proponents say it is. Some Smart
Growthers, who use similar language, argue that sustainable
growth means more high-rises, therefore less building on open
spaces outside city limits. Others, such as this project's
opponents, think skyscrapers are terrible things - at least
ones in their city.
"This is the wrong place for a tower nearly three times as
tall as the Reagan Courthouse," the ballot argument against
Measure A continues. "The site is directly across from El Sol
Elementary, and adjacent to the Orange County High School of
the Arts and a planned elementary arts academy."
I didn't know that the 11-story Reagan building was a
benchmark for urban height, nor did I realize that school kids
have an aversion to being near tall buildings. Of course, the
opponents' artist's rendering of the building, as reprinted in
Tuesday's Register, makes One Broadway Plaza look as if a
giant black hole the size of the Himalayan mountains would be
plopped in the middle of downtown Santa Ana, casting a shadow
from the Civic Center to somewhere in San Diego County.
The rest of the ballot argument against Measure A is filled
with phrases such as this: "[F]uture development must be
consistent with surrounding density and uses."
What we're witnessing is a transfer of power from
individuals, who should get to make their own decisions about
their own land, to "stakeholders" - i.e., anyone who might
have an opinion on the project, for whatever reason. They are
the ones who, in this new and disturbing worldview, get to
decide consistency and proper density.
There should not be a vote on whether Harrah can build his
new office tower. Democracy is a decent enough way to elect
leaders, but it is not the right way to make fundamental
decisions about life, liberty and property.
If your neighbors voted on what church you could attend,you
would rightly view that as a massive infringement on religious
liberty. If the public voted on the editorial position of this
newspaper, most people (sadly, not all) would understand that
to be a massive infringement of the right to free speech.
Yet vast numbers of Americans, from all political stripes
and walks of life, believe it consistent with a free society
for the majority to make land-use decisions for others. It's
democracy, after all.
Many Americans think that democratizing more decisions -
i.e., subjecting more things to a vote - makes for a more
peaceful society because everyone gets to have his say and the
majority gets to rule. Actually, the reverse is true. The more
decisions are made in the private sphere, the more peaceful
If every stakeholder gets a vote, I not only lose my
freedom, but the approval process can drag out for years and
can cause a great deal of contentiousness. Just think about
the decade-long battle over the reuse of the El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station for a reminder of what these democratic
land-use decisions entail. The El Toro decision involved
public land, so the long battle was perhaps unavoidable. But
the Harrah proposal is a private project on a private site
with private funds.
There used to be a time when most Americans understood that
private meant something, that not every decision should be
subjected to the subjective ideas of the public. That time is
long gone, and Measure A is just the latest reminder that when
private property doesn't count for much, the tyranny of the
majority quickly can follow.
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