A scientists’ organization wants to generate enough solar energy atop their building for all its needs. Despite enthusiastic support from neighbors and the DC government, a historic preservation board rejected the plan. One member suggested large solar panels are appropriate in “some remote part of Seattle” but not Dupont Circle.

Rendering of the proposed building seen from along Florida Avenue. Images from AGU / Hickok Cole Architects unless otherwise noted.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is an association of geophysicists, or “earth and space scientists.” AGU has a building at 2000 Florida Avenue NW, at the corner of 20th and Florida, next to Glen’s Garden Market. This is the very edge of the Dupont Circle Historic District, and surrounding buildings are both larger and uglier than this one.

AGU wants to make the building “net zero,” which means it consumes zero energy on balance. (It would pull from the grid at night and on cloudy days, but give back to the grid when it’s sunny). To do this requires a large canopy of solar panels.

Views from the west now (left) and proposed (right).

Preservation board members, however, called the canopy “too large and overbearing” while effusively praising the net zero effort.

Who gets to decide?

Any change to a building in a historic district has to go through historic review. First, the property owner meets with historic preservation staff in the DC Office of Planning. After getting feedback and potentially revising the plan, the owner presents it to community groups and ultimately to a hearing at the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a group of citizens including architects and historians.

If HPRB gives the green light, it can move forward; if not, the applicant has to either revise it or appeal to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation in a more legalistic and time-consuming process.

Neighbors and city officials applaud this project

For this project, the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association was enthusiastically in favor. President Robin Diener (who’s opposed many other buildings in the area), testified for DCCA. She said, “The project will reduce AGU’s energy costs, but AGU is also assuming costs that will ultimately redound to the good of all, not only by reducing consumption but by setting an example for others to follow. We very much need this environmental leadership in thinking about architecture for historic districts.”

Diener had some specific complaints about design changes for the building. For example, the current building has a small triangular glass projection at the corner which evokes a ship’s prow. The new design enlarges it, creating more glass and bringing more light to the interior, but Diener (and many members of the preservation board) want to see some changes to that. Likewise, the renovation would remove some of the window mullions, and a number of people disagree with that choice.

Windows and façade detail now (left) and proposed (right).

This isn’t a “contributing building” to the historic district, however. In a historic district, some buildings are called “contributing” if they were built during the main “period of significance,” while other, newer buildings are not. The latter group gets more leeway in renovations; preservation officials are supposed to only consider the building’s impact on the historic district. A change to window mullions may or may not be wise, but it probably doesn’t affect the historic district.

Especially because this building is not in the middle of a cluster of historic buildings or anything like that:

Rendering of the proposed building in a photograph of the immediate area.

City historic preservation staff also enthusiastically endorsed the project in their report, calling the canopy “uniquely compatible in this location.”

The report adds, “While obviously different in character and scale, the roof top feature would provide a distinctive profile that could be seen as a contemporary response to the historic roof towers and turrets that are common in the historic district, such as on the President Madison Apartments across the street.”

No neighbors testified against the plan at the hearing. The Dupont Circle Conservancy also voted in support (disclosure: I am a member of the conservancy, but didn’t attend that meeting.) The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission did not take a formal vote, but comments were positive.

Put it in Seattle, says one preservationist

Amid all of this enthusiasm, how did the members of HPRB themselves respond? Not well.

Graham Davidson, an architect with Hartman-Cox and a constant opponent of taller buildings, roof decks, and pretty much everything, said that this project sacrifices too much of the “neighborhood character.”

Anything that we can do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable, we are eager to support. However, to do that at the expense of the way the neighborhood looks and feels is not something we can support. ... I think most of us are very supportive of a net zero goal, but if this is the way that we have to achieve it, then this neighborhood is not the place to go about expressing it in this way.

About two years ago, when it was built in a brand new building in some remote part of Seattle, maybe it’s okay there, but I don’t think that in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that this fairly substantial piece of equipment should be installed on top of a very delicate building that has a very nice scale to it.

Davidson is talking about the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which has an even more prominent solar array. That’s far from a “remote” part of Seattle; it’s close to downtown Seattle and right near the Capitol Hill neighborhood, one that has a lot in common with Dupont Circle.

The Bullitt Center, Seattle. Image from Google Maps.

(Interestingly, this isn’t even the first time Davidson has suggested some architecture should stay in Seattle and far away from DC.)

Other HPRB members Joseph Taylor (Georgetown University) and Capitol Hill activist Nancy Metzger all criticized the canopy as well.

Rauzia Ally, a Dupont Circle resident and architect, questioned this bandwagon effect of taking sustainability less seriously. “I worry about some of the things Mr. Davidson is saying about overall huge canopy structures to achieve net zero goals. I think it’s a very laudable goal to try to make this a net zero building.”

Chair Gretchen Pfaehler (Beyer Blinder Belle) took a somewhat middle ground, supporting the idea of the solar panels (“I am all for this idea. I think it is great; I commend you on it,” she said) but asking AGU to redesign it “to look at the way the array could grow from it in a more organic fashion.”

Climate change can’t be a problem for someone else to solve

Climate scientists recently concluded that they’d been too conservative in predicting what greenhouse gases would do the planet; the sea level may rise twice as much as previously thought.

That could decimate New Orleans, Miami, and Boston, and cause huge displacement in many other coastal cities, not to mention disaster for millions around the globe. To forestall this requires everyone to do their part, not to suggest that historic districts are exempt, especially from projects that neighbors support (though HPRB ought to be willing to support such things even when neighbors are more divided).

DC’s 2012 sustainability plan calls to “retrofit 100% of existing commercial and multi-family buildings to achieve net-zero energy standards” by 2032. While that’s ambitious and perhaps unlikely, it certainly can’t happen if HPRB says no the very first time someone tries.

Seattle, in fact, now allows extra variation from zoning for buildings which go unusually far to reduce net energy or water usage. Buildings which aim to hit sustainability targets deserve more leeway, not less.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.