Opinion | When Historic Preservation Hurts Cities

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Opinion

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When Historic Preservation Hurts Cities

The madness of prohibiting solar panels on the rooftops of historic buildings illustrates how preservation culture has run amok.

Binyamin AppelbaumBy Binyamin Appelbaum Mr. Appelbaum is a member of the Editorial Board.
Homes in the Capitol Hill Historic District in Washington.
Homes in the Capitol Hill Historic District in Washington.Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times
I live in a historic neighborhood in the heart of Washington, D.C. It’s not historic in the sense that anything especially important happened here — certainly not in the modest rowhouses that make up the bulk of the neighborhood. What “historic” means, here and in cities across the country, is that this is a neighborhood where buildings are not supposed to change.
The law says window frames on Capitol Hill must be wooden, or something that looks very much like wood. If a front door has two parts and opens down the middle, it cannot be replaced by a single door that swings open from the side. If the house was built two stories tall, it must remain two stories tall — unless the addition can’t be seen from the street.Humans don’t like change, so it’s not surprising that historic preservation laws have become quite popular. There are now more than 2,300 local historic districts across the United States, and I know many people who would like to have their own neighborhood frozen in time.

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But historic preservation comes at a cost: It obstructs change for the better. And while that price is generally invisible, it is now on public display because of the city’s efforts to prevent Washington homeowners in historic neighborhoods from installing visible rooftop solar panels.

As you may have heard, Earth is getting hotter because we’re burning too much carbon, and one small way people can reduce their use of carbon is to tap the sun for electricity.I haven’t taken a poll, but I’m prepared to wager most residents of Washington’s historic districts agree that climate change is caused by humans and that we really ought to do something about it. But the mandarins of historic preservation — and a good many of my neighbors — regard allowing people to install rooftop solar panels with the kind of horror they usually reserve for, say, anachronistic window frames. (The Capitol Hill Restoration Society helpfully advises homeowners: “In the Historic District you should not even consider using vinyl windows.” That’s right — please stop thinking about vinyl, immediately.)
“I applaud your greenness, and your desire to save the planet. And I realize that we are in crisis, politically as well as sustainably,” Chris Landis, an architect who sat on one of the boards that pass judgment on proposed changes to Washington homes, told a homeowner in October who had the temerity to request permission to install 12 front-facing solar panels on his own roof. “But I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just — it upsets me, as somebody who’s supposed to protect the architectural fabric of a neighborhood.” (The quote is from a Washington Post article, with plenty more like it.)Mr. Landis and I apparently don’t share a sense of the sacrifices that may be required in a crisis. As the petitioner, Steven Preister, put the matter to Mr. Landis and his colleagues: “If we do not change and loosen these standards, will the district be habitable in 100 years?”

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable sources of energy like hydropower, wind and solar do not directly emit greenhouse gases. Did you know? Scientists believe that greenhouse gasses are the culprits behind global warming.

Good question!

The board, however, decided it was more important to keep Mr. Preister’s roof looking as it did 100 years ago.

Petition: Denied.

I am well aware that installing solar panels on every house in Washington — or even in the United States — would not suffice to make a significant dent in the pace of global warming.

And it should be noted that after Mr. Preister’s failure caused an uproar, the city announced changes that make it a little easier to win permission to put solar panels on historic homes. Mr. Preister finally won permission after promising to spend some $1,300 on camouflage.

But the fact that Washington continues to impose any aesthetic restrictions on rooftop solar panels is still a problem — and it is emblematic of the broader problems with preservation.

There are buildings that should be preserved because of their historic, cultural or aesthetic significance. But there aren’t many. The list certainly doesn’t include all 8,000 buildings in the Capitol Hill Historic District.Historic preservation, in practice, is not about preserving history. It is about preserving the lifestyle of an affluent urban elite.

We are placing large chunks of our cities under glass, preventing what should be some of our most vibrant neighborhoods from growing and changing as the country grows and changes.

Total ethanol capacity expanded 34% and E85 stations exceeded 1,800 in 2008; the fuel now represents more than 7% of the nation’s gasoline supply and can be found in more than 70% of gasoline gallons sold in the U.S.; the 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol produced last year added $47.6 billion to the nation’s GDP; moreover, cellulosic ethanol requirements are projected to boom during the coming decade.

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has shrewdly observed that “preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions…. The whole idea of modernization raises, whether latently or overtly, the issue of what to keep.”

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