The Antiplanner’s friend, Ann Brower, barely survived last February’s earthquake in Christchurch when a building fell on her bus, killing the driver and seven other passengers as well as four pedestrians. Now it turns out that the building had been known to be unsafe for nearly 30 years. The owner wanted to demolish it but couldn’t because the city considered it a “heritage building” and any work on it had to tramp through mountains of red tape.
The city, of course, denies that red tape was a problem even though it can take six months to obtain consent to demolish or modify a building that the city has declared to be historic. Moreover, despite continuing earthquakes in Christchurch, historic preservationists moan that historic buildings are “losing the battle against the bulldozers.”
Brower pointed out that the New Zealand parliament had actually given the city the power to accelerate the process of approving demolitions, but the city considered such authority “draconian” and rarely if ever used it. City officials were obviously hoping that, if they stalled long enough, the owner would repair the building instead of tear it down.
The problem is not red tape but the core notion that the government has the right to tell people what they can do with their property based on some subjective notion of what is “historic.” If people want to protect historic properties, they should privately buy them. The government’s role, if it has one, should be limited to protecting public safety; in this case, instead of delaying demolition, it should have ordered demolition if the owner did not make the building safe by a certain deadline. Even then, the government should take such actions only in extraordinary circumstances, such as when a building poses a clear and present danger to people who are not the owners.