Going green isn't easy for historic buildings

Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 11:07 a.m. CDT; updated 3:44 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 31, 2012

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis man's effort to put solar panels on the roof of his bar is meeting with some resistance, highlighting a problem that is occurring around the country.

Bob Hiscox owns the Soulard Bastille Bar in St. Louis' Soulard neighborhood. Soulard is a local and national historic district and does not allow visible panels, regardless of the environmental benefits.

"I'm just sick to my stomach," Hiscox said. "I don't get this."

Ryan Reed, a St. Louis preservation specialist, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that so far no one has produced satisfactory guidelines to help owners of historic buildings find space for things like solar panels and satellite dishes.

"Nationally, they've been dealing with it a lot, in historic districts in New Jersey, California, across the nation," Reed said.

Soulard, just south of downtown and one of St. Louis' oldest areas, features 150-year-old homes, mostly redbrick, along with dozens of neighborhood bars and restaurants. If the mansard rooflines get broken by panels and dishes, some worry the feel of Soulard might change.

But times are changing. Satellite dishes invite in hundreds of TV channels. Solar panels can help property owners like Hiscox save money and help the environment.

St. Louis architectural historian Michael Allen said many historic guidelines were written four decades ago and were meant to prevent bad business signs, cheap windows and backyard lean-tos.

"They weren't hoping to keep out solar panels," he said.

St. Louis' Cultural Resources Office has approved solar panels before, but only when they're hidden, or nearly so. Washington University successfully petitioned the city to mount 6-foot-tall wind turbines on the top of a three-story building in the Skinker-DeBalivere Historic District.

Meanwhile, rehabbers are constantly at odds with city and state guidelines over window replacements. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida recently complained that a project in her ward couldn't put in double-paned vinyl windows, despite their energy efficiency. State historic tax credit guidelines called for wooden windows.

"You're ultimately adapting a 110-year-old structure for today's use," she said. "But energy efficiency should be non-negotiable."

Betsy Bradley, director of the Cultural Resources Office, said it might be time to review Soulard's regulations, which have not been revised since 1991.

The revisions are too late for Hiscox. In May, a city board voted 4-2 against his solar panel request.

Hiscox offered to put up six temporary panels prior to any permanent construction and got 14 pages of signatures from neighbors. But Bradley denied the temporary demonstration. She wrote in a report, "The Soulard Historic District Standards, in several ways, indicate that a visually dominant solar panel installation on a street-facing public façade is not compatible with the historic character of the district."

Advocates and city leaders don't expect the problem to go away, but they say technology will reduce the size of solar panels. Shingle-size cells are already out in some communities.

Perceptions will adapt, too, they say.

"Some people don't like the look of solar," said Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association. "To me, it's beautiful."

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