Saturday, April 28, 2012

Property Wrongs

A glass-roofed museum, with a roof-top sunscreen that blocks out all but the even northern light into the galleries, had a condominium tower built to its north with reflective glass that bounced light directly into the galleries, threatening to damage the artwork within. The museum wants the developer to alter the exterior of the tower to prevent the reflections, while the developer claims he has city approval to complete the tower as designed.

Property law upholds our property rights, while also recognizing that one owner does not have the right to damage the property of another. We typically deal with such conflicts through zoning regulations and the approval processes surrounding them, pre-empting the possibility of one property owner’s paradise becoming a neighbor’s problem. No law or regulation, however, can anticipate every possible conflict, and in such cases, ethics can offer one path to a resolution.

In the case of this new tower shining unwanted sunlight into a museum, no one did so with malice in mind. Indeed, the proximity of the museum made the tower’s location particularly appealing to the developer and presumably, the buyers of the condominiums inside. As so often happens, though, our desire for proximity to what we most value can end up damaging it in the process.

We have seen this with suburbia, in which the desire to live close to nature has largely destroyed the natural environment that drew us to the suburbs in the first place. This tower seems like a high-end version of the same paradox. The very act of wanting to overlook the museum and its adjacent sculpture garden brings with it the very reflections that threaten to burn the garden’s plants and fade the museum’s art. Yes, we can have, as Shakespeare said, “too much of a good thing.”

Like the law, ethics acknowledges precedent. The museum preceded the tower and so the onus remains with the architect and developer of the tower to fix the reflectance problem they have caused. The latter’s claim that city approvals give him to right to build the tower as designed remains, if not dishonest, at least disingenuous. The government’s approval to carry a fire arm does not give us the right to shoot an innocent bystander, any more than the government’s approval of a building gives its developer the right to damage a neighbor’s property.

The disingenuous aspect of blaming the government comes at a time when it seems popular to blame the government for almost everything, and then using that as an excuse to starve the government of the funds it needs to do its job, thus giving more cause for blame. No doubt at least some of the wealthy individuals involved in the construction and purchase of the expensive condominiums overlooking the museum have participated in the anti-government rhetoric of right-wing politics. To then blame the government for not doing more to prevent the reflectance problem seems like the height of hypocrisy.

If anything, the lack of reflectance on the part of the developer equals the excess of it on the part of his building’s exterior. Antagonizing the museum and its many patrons lacks both utility and virtue, damaging the public perception of the project to the point where fixing the window problem pales in comparison to the cost of fixing the tower’s reputation and thus its marketability. The tower might have met the letter of the zoning code, but it so violates the social contract embedded in zoning of not harming the property of neighbors, that no one would win such a case in the court of public opinion.

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