Tuesday, August 21, 2012

If you build it, they'll make you keep it

Like a bad penny, the infamous Gold Dome of northwest, central OKC is back in the news. It is one of those “classic” and “iconic” architectural features of a neighborhood that is too vital to lose. You know, one of those buildings so important that supporters insist that someone else must (be made to) pay to have it preserved lest a cultural heritage be demolished. It is a classic lesson in be careful how creative you are in what you build; for if ugly enough, it shall never be destroyed.

Okay, so some tastes may have been acquired for it. De gustibus non est disputandum. But that should come with a caveat, solvat aut sedatos esse (pay or be quiet). Sadly, we don’t live fully in that society. But aside from the principled case against this kind of a taking, there is a pragmatic one. Property rights uncertainty begets conservative choices that stifle creativity and experiment. No doubt about it; the Gold Dome as “the bank of tomorrow” was a creative chance taken. It worked until tomorrow came (a few decades later), and then it stopped working. And I can say it stopped working with strong confidence because the best indicator that we have says so. Namely, individuals in the market willing to risk capital were attempting in the 1990s to replace the Gold Dome with another idea. How free that market is largely determines how confident we can be. More on that another day. Suffice it for now to assume that the market was speaking and saying, “it is believed that these resources will be better used if used differently”. The market was denied and may be denied again.

Now let me connect the dots to another “ugly” building in OKC that may stay ugly if that lesson from before is heeded. The thermal plant in downtown OKC needs a makeover according to The Oklahoman’s Steve Lackmeyer. His idea is to turn the plant into “a great canvass for public art or for glitzy Times Square style billboards”. Take something plain and make it not so plain. I could be persuaded. I’m sure the question of who is going to pay for it is more important to me than to Lackmeyer, but again that is not my point here. Clever readers may think I’ve gotten the lesson/analogy from the Gold Dome backwards here, but cleverer readers will know better. The lesson is if you allow your building to be too far out of the norm, too creative, stand too far forward, you run the risk of having something politically powerful people won’t let go away—despite the fact that you own it. Turn the thermal plant into a graffiti mural and then in ten years when the neighboring hotel wants to raze the plant and expand onto the lot that option might not be allowed.