Solar panels and historic districts: not a simple decision
Left photo: simple bungalows on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW. These houses are not in a historic district.
Middle photo: simple bungalow on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW with the addition of solar panels on the front roof.
Earlier this week GGW reported in "Preservation staff reject solar panels on Cleveland Park home," that DC's historic preservation office rejected a project to install solar panels on the roof of the building, out of a belief that it would significantly impact the architectural style of the house, vis-a-vis its inclusion in the Cleveland Park Historic District.
The article cites a piece by Matt Yglesias, who makes an interesting (but obvious) point:
He thinks this is a bad thing. I don't.
The reason I disagree with Yglesias is obvious. Historic compatibility is the whole point of having historic preservation zoning to begin with. Why else would you go through the trouble to document the cultural and architectural history of a neighborhood if your aim wasn't to preserve the neighborhood?
Part of this comes down to the "greater good." Most religious objections to historic preservation regulations are spurious. Most individual hardship arguments are personal, immaterial to the house so much as the owner's financial condition.
While I think there should be revolving funds and other support programs to assist people who can't otherwise afford maintaining a house to historic preservation standards, in my experience, most individual hardship arguments are spurious as well.
The same goes for "economic impact."
The reason that historic preservation guidelines work the way they do is to preserve the great economic value present in the historic district as a whole, a point that Yglesias seems to miss. The reality is that in most communities with historic district regulations, the historic districts have significantly higher values than comparable undesignated areas. In fact, historic preservation tends to be the most reliable urban revitalization tool, especially for neighborhoods.
Plus, most of the time, changes in buildings made as a result of "personal freedom" are not made with no impact on others. Changes that reduce the architectural integrity and other place qualities and values of individual properties can reduce the value of neighboring properties significantly, such as how living next to an empty, foreclosed house has been found to have a negative effect on property value of abutting houses averaging $150,000 per property. (Research I've seen on the impact of architecturally inappropriate changes shows a property value reduction of around $60,000 for abutting and nearby properties.)
By repositioning the value and identity of neighborhoods around historic preservation, neighborhoods are stabilized and become more competitive in terms of metropolitan residential landscape.
This has been an essential element of the "back to the city" population movement and can't be ignored by cities focused on maintaining the place and economic value of their communities.
The current policy with regard to solar panels, which I think is reasonable, considers addition of solar panels on the front, visible portion of the house to be out of character, and therefore requests for such changes are routinely denied.
Certainly, the images above, showing the same types of houses on the 800 block of Van Buren Street NW, one with solar panels, the others without, demonstrates that there is no question that the building with solar panels looks significantly different.