Greater Greater Washington

State Dept. tells Congo to remove unauthorized paving

The US Department of State has instructed the Republic of Congo to restore the front yard of their new chancery to planted green space. In a recent letter, the State Department says it "expects the Embassy to comply" with a DDOT request to return the yard to landscaping.


Photo by Rick Busch.

The embassy paved over the entire front yard of the historic Toutorsky Mansion, at 16th and Riggs NW, in September. Residents charged that this violated promises the embassy had made when securing approval to move into the building.

The embassy originally wanted to build a circular driveway and park the ambassador's car there during the day. Residents and DDOT opposed that proposal because it would remove landscaping, likely destroy several trees, require moving a bus stop, violate standards for placing driveway curb cuts, and occupy public space with cars.

The land beginning just in front of the porch all the way to the street is actually public space, not part of the lot. DC laws prohibit parking cars in public space, even when there is a driveway. However, many embassies nevertheless park cars there, and there's little or nothing DC can do about it.

On the question of the trees, representatives from the embassy assured community members they could build the driveway without killing the trees, but many with experience from other projects were doubtful. In the end, the embassy withdrew its request for the driveway, but received approval to convert a walled-in rear yard into a parking lot as well as to add a flagpole.

Then, in September, the embassy paved the entire yard and removed all of the trees. Members of the Dupont Conservancy asked the State Department to intervene, and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association protested outside the building.

The ambassador told the Examiner that they never promised not to pave over the yard. Plus, though they had promised not to build the driveway, he said that nobody can stop them from building the driveway if they wanted to.

Apparently DDOT and the State Department don't see it that way. In the letter, Cliff Seagroves of the State Department says,

The District of Columbia's Department of Transportation (DDOT) has investigated this matter and informed the Embassy in a letter dated November 17, 2011, that the referenced action constitutes a violation of the Board of Zoning Adjustment's Notice of Final Rulemaking and Determination and Order (No. 18162), issued on March 8, 2011. DDOT has further informed the Embassy that it is required to remove the unauthorized paving from public space and replace it with DDOT-approved landscaping within thirty days of the date of DDOT's letter.

Subsequent to the delivery of DDOT's letter, the Department of State again formally raised this matter with the Congolese Embassy, advising that it expects the Embassy to comply with the DDOT's requirement that it take prompt, corrective action.

Seagroves adds that he recently toured the interior and feels the Republic of Congo has been taking great care to restore the property.

DDOT's 30-day deadline ends December 17. Will the embassy heed the requests of neighbors, DDOT, and the State Department and take out? Sadly, no corrective action can restore the mature trees, but landscaping will be far more appealing, and appropriate, than the completely paved-over yet empty yard.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Something tells me that the embassy might be focused on other things at the moment.

by Thaps on Dec 5, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

I wonder if the State Department can force them to compensate for the loss of the mature trees?

by Dave Murphy on Dec 5, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

If DDOT were to tear up and re-seed the portion of the pavement that's on public property and wall it off so that cars can't transit, I'd have to imagine that the courts would be on their side. Diplomatic privileges don't extend to land outside the embassy.

by tom veil on Dec 5, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

Awesome. Thanks for reporting this.

by Brad on Dec 5, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

I don't understand why they're not being fined.

by julie on Dec 5, 2011 5:01 pm • linkreport

It's excellent that the State Department is backing up the city on this and that Mr. Seagroves went to see the property himself.

As for fines, the city can't directly fine a sovereign nation, much in the same way the city can't fine the federal government. DDOT may have the ability to tear up the pavement but there are other options available.

According to the State Department's Diplomatic Note that was issued on September 6 of this year, which says that a diplomatic mission's "failure to comply with local laws could result in legal and financial complications for a consular post." It goes on to say that if the State Department finds that a property is in violation of the the Foreign Missions Act (which requires that embassies follow local zoning and building laws) then the embassy may not be designated as a consular post and "would be assumed not to enjoy any otherwise applicable diplomatic or consular privileges and immunities, including inviolability and exemption from real estate taxation."

So yeah, I think it would be in the best interests of the Congolese Embassy to just fix the damn yard.

by Adam L on Dec 5, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

@Thaps "Something tells me that the embassy might be focused on other things at the moment."

This is the embassy of the Republic of Congo (Capital is Brazzaville). The vote issues we've been reading about are related to the other Congo ... the Democratic Republic of Congo (capital city is Kinshasa)... Their embassy is the not-yet-completed building on New Hampshire across from the dog park. (One block away from this one.)

by Lance on Dec 5, 2011 6:26 pm • linkreport

@Lance - Thanks for clarifying. Missed that and it's even right there in the lede.

by Thaps on Dec 5, 2011 7:12 pm • linkreport

I blame the fact that "The DRC was Zaire, now it's the DRC, not Zaire" has fish-all for meter.

by Kolohe on Dec 5, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

@Adam L, While what you say is technically correct, it's only half the picture. The other half is that we have embassy requirements over there ... including a brand new embassy ... and our embassies require very special treatment given the high profile target they provide. So, bottom line is that while State can do all that stuff they say in the letter, the Congo can just as easily retaliate on our embassy over there ... and without the niceties of the type of legalistic procedures we had to go through to get that letter written by State ... and the Congo knows this.

The greater hope is the part that David kind of glossed over in his report. It's that the Republic of Congo embassy which has already shown its willingness and desire to be a full partner in the historic preservation efforts of its host city by so immaculately restoring the interior and repointing the exterior and repairing and guilding the fence will WANT to restore the lawn and get through this moment of not seeing eye to eye so that it can continue as a full partner with the neighborhood in this endeavour. Sometimes you have to read between the lines. Like in the case for why Mr. and Mrs. 14th and You moved to Rockville.

by Lance on Dec 5, 2011 9:33 pm • linkreport

@Lance

Hopefully you're right and the Congolese Embassy simply makes good on its promise to maintain the integrity of the historic property as it has with the building itself.

However, I disagree that the State Department letter is effectively toothless. Quite on the contrary, I don't believe it's a coincidence that the latest Diplomatic Note, reaffirming the need for foreign governments to get local zoning approval, was released just weeks before the embassy paved over the grounds. Regardless of the circumstances leading up to the release of that Note, it seems likely that the State Department would not be pleased at being so directly and openly ignored.

As for retaliation on our Embassy in Brazzaville, I can think of many reasons why the Congolese government would not get into a silly tit-for-tat, especially in regards to security. Not least of which is the $500 million we send over in foreign aid is equal to almost 5% of their total GDP. In fact, the Congolese are probably going to be most upset when those funds are diverted in order to pay all the parking tickets their vehicles continue to get each time they block the alley.

by Adam L on Dec 5, 2011 11:05 pm • linkreport

Adam, this will be an interesting (and very welcome) development if State is really willing to use these actions as leverage. My experience with them in these embassy situations was that when push come to shove, they weren't willing to use any of the means at their disposal because they feared 'retaliation' for our embassy abroad. I can only think of a couple of instances where the embassy actually complied with State's demands, and in neither of those instances where the tools you mention actually used. Maybe times have changed. Hopefully so. I guess we'll know if the 17th of December (30 days from the order) comes and goes ... and the pavement is still there.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 8:16 am • linkreport

The front yard probably wouldn't have been paved over, and public access would have been preserved if the local NIMBYs hadn't prevailed and this property was restored for use as an inn, or bed & breakfast. Best we can hope for now is for the embassy to remove the pavement and re-plant some greenery, and for the embassy to participate in the Walkingtown DC embassy open houses program so the public can get a glimpse of the restored interior.

by MrTinDC on Dec 6, 2011 8:55 am • linkreport

While it is true the Congo might retaliate against our Embassy there, I think the resulting loss of foreign aid and the ability to send Cousin Cletus out of the country as a diplomatic aid when we restrict the number of embassy staff available to the Congolese would more than offset it.

by Dave J on Dec 6, 2011 9:03 am • linkreport

@Adam: The US has much more to loose in here situation than the Congolese. There is a good reason for US aide to their country -- I presume it is partly so they can make loan payments to US banks -- and risking this will clearly upend domestic US interests.

I expect that State does not want to escalate a dispute over a front yard, and I hope that they will stick to good neighborly persuasion.

by goldfish on Dec 6, 2011 9:09 am • linkreport

Can DC refuse to make the curb-cuts, thereby making the driveway useless? Surely there is no confusion over the sidewalk being DC property.

by rdhd on Dec 6, 2011 9:19 am • linkreport

This is an over reaction . The embassy has not torn down any historic structures nor have they significantly damaged or altered anything that cannot be repaired. They have legitimate reasons for making these adaptations- and to be so strict with an embassy from another country means that our own embassy staff abroad will have a harder time of it. NIMBYs are at the core of the problem in this issue.We need to send the NIMBYs to the Congo.

by w on Dec 6, 2011 10:17 am • linkreport

"Sometimes you have to read between the lines. Like in the case for why Mr. and Mrs. 14th and You moved to Rockville."

Lance-

I'm not certain why my wife and I were brought into this conversation, or why you think you need to "read between the lines" regarding our move. There's not much to read into. Yet, with the preface that this inquiry is against my better judgment, I am somewhat curious as to what outlandish reasons you may have concocted for our crossing of state lines. Not that we owe you or anyone else an explanation, but since we're getting brought up in abstentia, I might as well ask.

by Ben (Mr. 14thandyou) on Dec 6, 2011 10:36 am • linkreport

Ben, you missed Lance misrepresenting you as champion of the auto-oriented suburb yesterday!

Starting with this comment and the one below it:
http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/12979/breakfast-links-federal-raid-roundup/#comment-122742

by MLD on Dec 6, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

@Ben, This is actually a follow-on to a discussion held in the breakfast links issue from yesterday (Dec 5). Rather than try to summarize that discussion on this thread, it's probably best you just read it on that thread. I hope everything is going well for you both in Rockville. And I for one really would like to hear (on your blog) an update ... especially in regards to whether maybe your living in suburbia has changed/shifted/tempered any of your previous opinions on some of the issues which the GGWers hold dear.

Thanks

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

I just worry that their disregard for maintaining the yard and mature trees will parallel their disregard for maintaining and preserving the awesome architectural details of the building. I could see them trashing the place.

by m on Dec 6, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

I will gladly join Ben (Mr. 14th & You) in calling out the entirely bizarre, irrelevant and uncalled for ad hominem taunting attack by Lance. A discussion over an embassy property should not (to any reasonable mind, I should say) include sarcasm aimed at a wonderful young couple for simply moving--a young couple who, while they lived in the District, engaged deeply and positively in the civic process. Perhaps this is the price anyone pays in encountering Lance's peevish reflex to go ad hominem, when they dare to hold views on development and urban planning that do not align with Lance.

by Joel on Dec 6, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

@Ben,

Thank you for this major contribution to the growing legend of "GGW Lance". Superb.

I would write something about how "Everyone has already agreed that ample parking was the motivating factor in your move" but I stopped thinking about this comment several minutes ago, and am already busy typing away on my next comment.

by oboe on Dec 6, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

I for one really would like to hear (on your blog) an update ... especially in regards to whether maybe your living in suburbia has changed/shifted/tempered any of your previous opinions on some of the issues which the GGWers hold dear.

And if not, I'd be happy to concoct some for you.

by oboe on Dec 6, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

re: w's and MrTinDC's statements ... I'd hope we could all agreed that any proposed use of a residential structure for non-residential uses in a residentially zoned area is a bad thing to be fought and opposed by one and all irrespective of whether you live close enough to it to be affected by it personally or not.

I.e., Whether we're talking about putting a foreign government's office building in there (a chancery) or someone's hotel, neither is a good thing for the adjoining neighbors who will have to put up with the kind of externalities that one is not supposed to have to put up with in an area zoned 'residential'. Yeah, I know we keep hearing 'but they just wanted to put a b&b in there', but the truth is that b&b's are allowed as 'a matter of right' ... no special exception is needed. A special exception is however needed for a hotel ... and there's a good reason for that. A hotel carries with it a whole host of externalities that a b&b does not. A b&b is limited to something like 7 rooms and (importantly) the owner MUST be the one managing it and doing it with no more than 1 person assisting. A hotel can have dozens of employees. A b&b cannot hold large events (i.e., parties) that will keep the immediate neighbors up at night, a hotel can. A b&b cannot open a restaurant serving walk-ins as part of its operations, a hotel can. They are 2 very different things. And again, no special permission is required to do a b&b ... Those saying 'it would have been nice to have a b&b in there are being had by those who tried to spin it as an innocuous b&b. Go ask the neighbors living next door to the O Street Mansion if there's a difference between a b&b and a hotel. The problems there with the neighbors regularly made the local papers (i.e., the predecessors to GGW) back in the 90s.

And as for the term 'NIMBY' ... I love the way it gets thrown around to try to denigrate anyone who doesn't agree with your position. It's like people forget what the acronym stands for ... it's Not In My Back Yard.

I know a local activist who is the first to denigrate any neighbors who try to stand up for their rights. Yet, whenever similar situations occur within a block or two of where he lives, he is the first to organize opposition and form groups opposing the actions. THAT is an example of being a NIMBY. Most of the uses of that term I'm seeing on here don't come close to really being an issue of 'Not In My Back Yard.' If we're going to use that offensive term, let's at least try to use it correctly.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

Lance said: "I'd hope we could all agreed that any proposed use of a residential structure for non-residential uses in a residentially zoned area is a bad thing to be fought and opposed by one and all"

No, I do not agree. First of all, a hotel or B&B IS residential. Second of all, I think it's a good thing to have some mixed uses (not hog-rending plants or NASCAR raccetracks of course) in a purely residential area. I wish there was a hotel closer to my home, for example, so when out-of-town friends and relatives come to visit they could stay nearby. If you want to live in a 100% residential enclave with no possibility of there ever being any mixed uses, there are plenty of gated communities in the exurbs you can choose from.

by MrTinDC on Dec 6, 2011 11:16 am • linkreport

Alright, this is the last I'm saying on this matter because quite honestly this has already taken up too much of my time this morning. But our names are being brought up in vain in these discussions, and our supposed motives are being spoken about by individuals such as Lance who are apparently rather confused--or make a habit of intentionally distorting facts.

As I stated on our blog, we moved for two reasons: time and space. Time, because Mrs. 14thandyou was spending upwards of 2 hours a day in her car traveling to and from the elementary school in MoCo where she teaches and our Logan home; space, because we could afford more of it in MoCo and had been tired after spending years stepping over each other in our previous home.

That's it. There aren't any secret, insidious motivations. Parking had nothing to do with it, nor did any other nefarious reasons that you may wish to ascribe.

As for an update on how living in Rockville has changed my views on urbanism and lifestyle: it hasn't. We still walk pretty much everywhere: to the Metro, to the grocery store, to restaurants and shopping, etc. We live in a large, multi-unit development surrounded by other larger, multi-unit developments in a part of the County slated for significant Metro-focused redevelopment in the coming years. (Density makes as much sense in the area we live now as it does in our old neighborhood.) We might even be getting (gasp) bikesharing up here. Crazy stuff, I know.

It's true, the housing is uglier, the region as a whole is more car-dependant and my daily walk to the Metro isn't as enjoyable as it once was. But we do have some awesome bagel shops, and the Asian dumplings rock.

So, Lance, with that said, I would kindly request that you leave us out of your comments when you're ascribing notions, motivations and ideas to us that aren't true. Because the thing I miss the least about our old neighborhood is the petty, bullshit drama perpetuated by people with an axe to grind.

by Ben (Mr. 14thandyou) on Dec 6, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

@MrTinDC:

I was just thinking the same thing while walking around Capitol Hill the other day. Frankly, the slow conversion of corner shops into residences is one of the great, unremarked-upon tragedies of the last decade. There's no reason why a small well-managed hotel should be any more intrusive than a residence. It could be more so, given that they have a financial incentive not to be a bad neighbor.

by oboe on Dec 6, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

Of course, the blocks very close to 16th and Riggs are not purely residential as Lance seems to imply. There is the 40 plus room Windsor Inn at 16th and T, the 38 room Embassy Inn at 16th b/w R and Corcoran, and the small market at 16th and T. As a resident at 16th and S, I do not find any of these uses to be problematic and think they add a great measure of diversity to the area. What is more, I am unaware of any problems concerning the operation of any of these businesses (if I'm wrong, please correct me). I struggle to see how how granting the B&B the requested variance would have been problematic in any way.

by DW on Dec 6, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

@Ben, The drive to MoCo is only 20 - 40 mins max depending on where in MoCo one is going. (I know I used to commute to areas right around where you are at ... 30 mins even on a bad day.) How do you get a 2 hr commute out of that if you aren't counting the parking issues?

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

@Ben, I'm not sure what to make of your screed against Lance. I read yesterday's blog when Lance (apparently wrongly) suggested that "parking" was a reason why you moved. There wasn't much discussion beyond that small point. You obviously took the time to talk about you and your wife IN PUBLIC. So I'm baffled why you seem to take so much offense to a person mentioning you or your wife on a blog. At a mininum, your and your wife would be rather nonexistent to all of us had you not outed yourself on a blog. Now you're requesting that online commenters refrain from talking about the two of you? Get outta here dude!

I get it, you don't Lance's take on the reasons behind your move to MoCo. Maybe it misrepresents the facts. But good grief, there was no sinister motivation here. No one is stalking you and your wife. Lance made a one-sentence statement (based on y'days discussion) about you and your wife and this is how you respond?

You are the only reason why his has taken up so much of your time. If you don't want your and your wife to mentioned online, it might be a good idea to stop doing so yourself because this is really, really odd. I do hope this is not how you normally respond to what people infer about you and your wife online. It surely doesn't make for a welcoming atmosphere.

by HogWash on Dec 6, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

@HogWash

Maybe it misrepresents the facts.

There is no 'maybe' about it. And, frankly, a reader didn't need Ben's rebuttal here to see that.

@oboe

Frankly, the slow conversion of corner shops into residences is one of the great, unremarked-upon tragedies of the last decade.

Absolutely. The density of DC's rowhouse neighborhoods could (and did) support small clusters of corner stores, neighborhood bars, small restaurants and other retail uses. Allowing these kinds of uses by right again could be a tremendous opportunity for the city.

by Alex B. on Dec 6, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

HogWash-

"So I'm baffled why you seem to take so much offense to a person mentioning you or your wife on a blog. At a mininum, your and your wife would be rather nonexistent to all of us had you not outed yourself on a blog. Now you're requesting that online commenters refrain from talking about the two of you?"

Go back and re-read my comments. I could care less if we're mentioned on a blog. We've been mentioned in a number of places--we wrote it for four years, so it's expected (albeit a bit random in this instance). What I take issue with is individuals making up stories about us in their own minds and using that to justify their rantings. I'm not here to create a "welcoming atmosphere" to people who behave that way.

by Ben (Mr. 14thandyou) on Dec 6, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

@Alex "Allowing these kinds of uses by right again could be a tremendous opportunity for the city.

Unless your house or apartment happens to be the one right next door to the noise and foot traffic whose peace, quiet, and order gets sacrificed. But hey ... as long as they're not coming for me yet, why should I care about my neighbors' peace, order, and quiet?

' ... and when they came for me, there was no one there to stand up for me ... '

the hypocracy I see in some of these postings is mind-boggling.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

@Ben:
Sorry. This must be your first encounter with Lance. If you don't say what he wants to hear, he reads between the lines to find it.

Don't take it personally. He does it to everyone.

(In fact, he's going to do it to me right now. Although I didn't say anything about parking, clearly if you read between the lines, you can see a tacit admission that the system is broken and that I just proved Lance's point about how we can fix America.)

by Matt Johnson on Dec 6, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

What hypocrisy, Lance?

Wouldn't that be if I opposed a retail use next to my house? Have I done so? How would you even know? Or are you 'reading between the lines' again?

by Alex B. on Dec 6, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Lance

Your circular logic is really tiring and an ineffective technique. It's not "reading between the lines," it's "making s%&! up."

by MLD on Dec 6, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

@Alex, It wasn't "maybe" it "was." Ok. I got it. So what do you want? Blood? And how is that you get to determine what every other person gets from a posting. What's plainly "clear" to one person may not be the same for others. Lance gave his opinion. Lance was wrong.

@Ben, the "story" he made up is that you moved because of parking. I assume his inference was based off of something you wrote. That's the whole story. OTOH, You thought someone's opinion on "why" you moved warranted an editorial correction and that is what I consider odd. Frankly, I don't think anyone cares why you (personally) moved but we commented on it because the circumstances surrounding your move was mentioned online.

You've made this much more than what it ever was. Somebody wrongly stated the reasons behind your move. So what! I can't even understand what's offensive about that. I could see if he suggested you moved because your wife was a drug dealer or you were evading taxes. He said parking. Geez!

by HogWash on Dec 6, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

wow... somebody over at GGW seems to have dropped the comment moderation ball today! I, for one, don't care about parking, Montgomery County, commuting times, other blogger's relocations, or other commenter's personality issues. Let's try being grown ups and sticking to the topic of the embassy and the yard?

I am hopeful that the State Department plans to put some teeth behind this request if they don't comply. Since it's public space, does anyone know if the city can just tear up the concrete on their own?

by shaw_guy on Dec 6, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

"the "story" he made up is that you moved because of parking. I assume his inference was based off of something you wrote. That's the whole story."

Ben plainly states that the long commute was part of the reasoning behind the move. Parking (or lack thereof) plays into commute time. It doesn't take a lot of guessing to draw the line between Mrs. 14th and You's rant about having to circle at night when returning from her commute to work because of out-of-state cars in the RPP areas near their home in Logan ... and the next posting some weeks later announcing they have moved to Rockville because of 2 reasons one of which being the commute.

What may be less obvious is the connection between the policies which the so-called urbanists are pushing for ... such as reducing parking options for drivers in the city ... and the effects these very same policies can end up having on them when life brings them to a place where the bike and a good pair of shoes isn't enough to get them where they need to go.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 1:13 pm • linkreport

Unless your house or apartment happens to be the one right next door to the noise and foot traffic whose peace, quiet, and order gets sacrificed.

I used to live a half block from 18th and Columbia, so I know from commercial/residential mix. We eventually had to move because of noise issues, the culprit wasn't the commercial establishments--it was the noise from our neighbors.

' ... and when they came for me, there was no one there to stand up for me ... '

Ah, right. Martin Niemöller. Wasn't he the anti-Nazi clergyman who was sent to a concentration camp for his defense of German Jews. You're in some rarefied company there, Lance.

by oboe on Dec 6, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

I'm an occasional GGW reader, and I'm about to stop reading if this keeps up. This is two comment threads in two days on otherwise interesting articles--in this case, really solid follow-up reporting on an issue that piqued my interest here a month or so back--that have been derailed largely by a single commenter. I would recommend you guys start deploying the daisy cutter with greater aplomb.

On the subject at hand: I would not expect much action here, but it's great to see federal entities actually making a potentially positive impact on DC's affairs rather than the usual opposite way it works out. As others have pointed out, State probably can't flex too much muscle without dealing with irritating repercussions overseas, which is too bad. The Congolese are mildly infamous for this sort of habitual line-stepping in the international community. I think DC opting out of the curb cuts would be a hilarious and great solution, except that these guys are just going to roll their diplomatic SUVs over the curb anyway.

Does DC offer any sort of diplomatic all-times street permits for dignitary vehicles? It's not bad that they've set up shop in the neighborhood, and it wouldn't be terrible if they had, say, a pair of dashboard tags like Arlington's flex passes that they could pass around.

by HooShotYa on Dec 6, 2011 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Lance I live less than half a block from 14th Street in busy Columbia Heights, and I love the convenience of being able to walk to retail, and don't mind the noise. Again, if you want 100% residential without a corner store within walking distance, you have the option of residing in a gated exurban development. The fact is, if the Congolese embassy had become a bed & breakfast as originally proposed, it would hardly have been a loud, disruptive use, the front yard would have remained green, and public access to see the restored interior would have been much better. The NIMBYs there shot themselves in the foot, just like the folks in Friendship Heights.

by MrTinDC on Dec 6, 2011 2:16 pm • linkreport

@MrTinDc ... The fact is, if the Congolese embassy had become a bed & breakfast as originally proposed, it would hardly have been a loud, disruptive use, the front yard would have remained green, and public access to see the restored interior would have been much better.

You really don't know that for a fact. For example, load disruptive parties were in fact held on that front lawn even after being denied the change of use. And you have no way of knowing if they wouldn't have paved over the lawn or granted access to the interior. That's a guess.

The only thing we do know for sure is that if we want this place to act like the residence the zoning documents say it is, then neither the office use by the Congolese OR the proposed hotel use by the former owner are appropriate uses of the property. You don't have to agree that this property should remain a residence ... but then that is what needs to be discussed ... not 'this one non-compliant use would have been been better than this other non-compliant use'. It's like saying, jumping into the frying pan is better than jumping into the fire. Either way, the neighbors are getting burned.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

@Lance,
I bet that your idea of a loud, disruptive party is a LOT different from mine, and most of the other commenters here. ;)

by MrTinDC on Dec 6, 2011 9:19 pm • linkreport

@MrTinDC , Thank You for aknowledging that most GGWers don't understand what the average resident here wants.

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 9:42 pm • linkreport

;)

by Lance on Dec 6, 2011 9:43 pm • linkreport

Lance, if that last comment was meant to imply that you are an average DC resident--my friend, you are anything but.

by Alan on Dec 6, 2011 10:38 pm • linkreport

@Alan, Thank you! I appreciate your thinking I'm exceptional and special, but no, ... I'm just a regular DCer.

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 8:27 am • linkreport

No need to thank me, Lance. Just stating the obvious.

by Alan on Dec 7, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

I'm with Alan here, obviously. The notion that Lance, with his car-oriented, anti-smart growth, suburban-style perspective represents an average DC resident is laughable.(For the record, I have lived in DC proper for 15 years, inside the Beltway for 20).

by MrTinDC on Dec 7, 2011 9:33 am • linkreport

@Mr T

You are correct about Lance's idea of what constitutes a loud, disruptive party. I am a neighbor of the embassy/would-be B&B and, in fact, am closer to it than where (I think) Lance lives. Several times, the former B&B owners did in fact hold large parties. They were not terribly common but they did happen. While we sometimes could hear people outside the mansion, they were not terribly loud or disruptive. To their credit, I recall that the owners of the mansion did a pretty good job of keeping people from congregating out front. Ultimately, I would say that they were no louder than the normal street noises we hear from 16th street which includes Metro buses, traffic, people walking and talking at all hours, etc... For what it is worth, we can see the embassy/mansion from two exposures and we tend to be sensitive to noises b/c we have a child.

by DW on Dec 7, 2011 10:04 am • linkreport

I will only add to DW's first-person account that no loud disruptive parties were held by the B&B the question of whether Lance--unlike DW--even lived in the neighborhood at that time. Which may provide an interesting reverse deployment of Lance's previous admonishment to MrT: "You don't really know that for a fact."

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 10:34 am • linkreport

Those "mature trees" might have been cleverly disguised listening devices. One simply cannot be too careful, not when you've got Gabon and Cameroon nibbling at your heels.

by Crickey7 on Dec 7, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport

@Joel, yes I experienced at least 2 of those parties that I know of ... and witnessed the trashed yard, sidewalk, and adjacent street the next morning. (Beer cups and vomit ... ) But I will say that in both instances the owners cleaned everything up nicely. And pile the bags of smelly garbage behind the house in the alley so that the neighbors could enjoy the sights and smells for a couple months until the figured out how to remove it ... Or did the city maybe remove it after receiving numorous complaints?

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

I value your perception of the facts.

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

Again, I think the impact of the parties are being taken well out of proportion to what actually took place. Was there extra trash? Yes. But it was not any worse than what we tend to see in the alley b/w Riggs and S (I know b/c I see it every day) where trash often piles up behind the condos on 16th and the houses on Riggs and S. What is more, we frequently have large amounts of trash in the trashcan at 16th and Riggs. In fact, I would say that the people who dump their christmas trees (late) along 16th street so they aren't picked up for weeks, and the people who place their old furniture and other goods on 16th, S, and Riggs with "free" signs are far worse than any disruption ever caused by the few parties held at the mansion. I also don't recall garbage sitting around in the back for "months".

As to vomit, I can't say I remember any but don't dispute the possibility. But I've also seen the same, and worse, over the past few months so it is pretty hard to say that things would have been any better or worse had the inn become a reality.

At the end of the day, the mansion's owners appeared to have been reasonable people and I strongly doubt that allowing the requested variance would have resulted in any serious harm to the neighborhood or to its neighbors.

by DW on Dec 7, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

so it is pretty hard to say that things would have been any better or worse had the inn become a reality

And the point I have been trying to make is that we should settle for neither. The property is zoned residential and neither of these uses are residential. Why are we letting ourselves be drawn into the game of 'maybe this non-residential use will be less impactful than that non-residential use?'

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 5:49 pm • linkreport

Which only underscores the complete lack of pragmatic thinking and reality-based assumptions of the anti-B&B protests. I've heard this talking point countless times before from the antis regarding this property: that it should have been driven to residential usage.

The odds of residential usage were incredibly small to none. The market at that time, taken together with the incredible burden of the unique structure, meant overwhelming odds for two usages: chancery, or hospitality.

Odds of a single resident incredibly small, of course. And if you were an investor interested in real estate, you had untold easier opportunities around the neighborhood: new construction, or rehab of multi-unit buildings built much more recently.

Meanwhile, the small-odds option, hospitality, *already* was in play as a B&B, and needed a little help (what Lance fear-mongers as some monstrous morph into a "hotel") to make financials. That was driven out, sending a clear signal to anyone else considering another B&B, and indeed their financiers behind them.

The antis rolled the dice, quite unwisely for the sake of the neighborhood, and the odds of course came down for chancery usage.

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 7:18 pm • linkreport

Interesting ... The house WAS a residence before it was sold to the B&B owner about 10 years ago. There goes Joel's theory. I heard the same theory in my old neighborhood ... fortunately most people didn't buy it. In the 10 years I lived there I personally witnessed at least 10 houses returned to residential use either as condos or houses. The former Scientology building at 2125 S St was one of those condo buildings. I keep reading on here we need more places for people to live. What's wrong with using existing houses for that? Then maybe we wouldn't have to crowd buildings on to other buildings' lots like is being done at 15th and V.

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 9:30 pm • linkreport

Lance: My "theory" was that you were not likely to see once again an individual come forward and succeed in purchasing the property for solo use as his/her residence. The previous owner, Bruce, was not likely to be repeated/succeeded by a similar individual.

Reality: and it did not happen. It was put to market, and the results are the results.

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 9:42 pm • linkreport

And if we stood firm and didn't allow our residentially zoned houses to be used for non-residential purposes, what do you think would happen? Do you think they would stand vacant forever .. or would 'the market clear' at the appropriate price for residential use? ... like 2125 S St where a developer came in and made ... residences ... ?

What you saw happening when you had someone trying to put a non-residential use in there, was someone trying to 'get something for nothing' at the neighbors' expense. Residential properties sell for far less per square foot than commercially zoned properties.

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 10:03 pm • linkreport

You see Joel, I know this to be the case because I've seen it happen. Back in my old neighborhood I was the doubting Thomas ... like you are now. But they were right and there is no arguing with success. Go take a look at 2125 S which used to be the Scientology headquarters ... Go look at the condos at the corner of Bancroft and Phelps. Go take a look at the school building Jim Bell reconverted into a grand single family residence on Wyoming just off of Conn.

If you declare defeat before even trying, that's exactly what you'll get.

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 10:28 pm • linkreport

C'mon Lance, if they subdivided the mansion into smaller condo units geared towards young professionals, you'd be railing against that too (it would have been fine by me!). No way would a building like that become a giant single-family home today. Your vision of Dupont Circle as some residential, suburban glade is a fantasy.

by MrTinDC on Dec 7, 2011 10:41 pm • linkreport

Lance: It...didn't...happen. And if you're suggesting that you had a vision that could have proven different, and you've declared your first-person presence at the time, then what did you do in concert with your neighbors to pursue that vision, to market the property, to seek out potential residential purchasers? You were either chock full of solutions you vigorously pursued, or just like your passion for the 15th & V issue, it's mostly after-the-fact bloviating on blogs.

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 10:48 pm • linkreport

Joel, actually what the neighbors did in Sheridan-Kalorama was pretty simple and straight-forward. First they formed a neighborhood civic association that facilitated organizing and funding the effort. Then they established a historic district. (We already have these first two ... DCCA and the Conservancy). And then they simply opposed by all means any non-residential uses in an organized and well-funded manner ... while working to change the Comprehensive Plan to steer further siting of embassy chanceries away from the neighborhood (and to others including Dupont ... )

And then houses started selling as ... surprise surprise ... houses ... at house prices.

It's not your business or my business to help someone sell their place ... which is what I think you are suggesting above. It is however our business not let ourselves be called upon to pay the price - in the way of externalities - for someone converting a residence into a business next door to us. There is plenty of commercially zoned property in this city for these non-residential uses. Yes, commercial real estate sells and rents for many times per square foot what residential real estate sells and rents for ... but that is not by accident. There are a lot of externalities to be covered and paid for where non-residential uses operate.

When someone pays residential prices for a residence and then converts it to a business use, this just pushes those externalities on to the neighbors. I.e., They are left footing the bill. And that's just not right.

by Lance on Dec 7, 2011 11:17 pm • linkreport

<< lot of words for four letters: punt

Enjoy the embassy.

by Joel on Dec 7, 2011 11:31 pm • linkreport

Thanks Joel. Yes, it could have been worse ... It could have been a hotel ...

by Lance on Dec 8, 2011 12:11 am • linkreport

*B&B. And "there goes that theory"

by Joel on Dec 8, 2011 9:18 am • linkreport

I thought Lance's position at the outset was that the previous owner of the mansion was justified operating the B&B with fewer than 10 rooms (or some such number) and that the only issue was whether a variance would be given to have more rooms. This means that the previous uses, including the two allegedly disruptive parties that Lance remembers (which in reality were not nearly as grave as he imagines) were consistent with the "residential" zoning in place. Is that not right? My whole point, as one who lives closer to the B&B/embassy than Lance, is that the previous use was virtually indistinguishable from what takes place at the adjacent residences and that there was no reason to believe things would have gotten any worse if the variance had been granted. By foolishly opposing the variance, the inevitable happened--namely, it became an embassy and the city both lost precious tax revenue and lost any ability to influence the owner.

One thing I find especially interesting is the idea that this building could have become condos. I strongly suspect that many of the people who opposed the zoning variance also would have strongly opposed the building becoming condos for one reason--parking. With several individual units there is a greater likelihood of people moving in with cars. And since the mansion has only one real parking spot (the spot on Riggs where the curb cut is can barely fit one car w/o blocking the sidewalk), residents would have had to park on city streets. Something tells me the Lances of the neighborhood would have been just as opposed to this use. Ironically, it is likely that an expanded B&B would have had a smaller parking footprint because most guests to the area do not bring their own cars and employees can take public transportation--indeed, the impact of the much larger hotels one and two blocks away speaks volumes.

by DW on Dec 8, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

So... people who live in houses don't throw occasional, obnoxious parties?

by Alex B. on Dec 8, 2011 10:02 am • linkreport

That's right, DW. And as Mark Lee--author of the Washington Blade column that questioned the wisdom of the anti-B&B protests--wrote on another blog, the B&B's pursuit of a variance would not have resulted in any opening of floodgates, and included voluntary restrictions on activities impacting neighbors. His comment appears on Borderstan here: http://bit.ly/vwsql2

I will add that the B&B, even at the increased capacity which was denied, would have been within the capacity range of all B&B's currently operating in the neighborhood, without devastation predicted by Lance, yet with the additional voluntary restrictions.

by Joel on Dec 8, 2011 10:29 am • linkreport

@Joel, if you get a chance, go walk down the alley behind that 'b&b' you noted earlier situated at the SW corner of 16th and T. The one that's made up of something like 3 row houses strung together (and which incidentally isn't a b&b at all given it is grandfathered in as a hotel predating a 1980 law excluding hotels from residential zones). Take a look at the barbed wire that defines its back fence. And I don't mean 'a little' barbed wire ... I mean a 'rolled' barbed wire 'protection' for this property. You won't see that on any of the adjacent residential properties. Yes, this 'b&b' (actually a licensed hotel) has a right to be there ... and it brings with it the kind of externalities (such as that barbed wire) that businesses bring when they operate ... like a business. And it's not just about noise or parking as this discussion above would leave the impression. It's about businesses having different needs and different expectations than residences.

And it's not even about businesses and residents not be able to mix well. Look at near where you are situated. There are a lot of business situated along the commercially zoned 14th Street that back up to residential areas like your own. And, as you've stated above, you don't find it a bother. But there's a difference between your situation and the situation of neighbors abutting a property such as the Toutorsky Mansion (aka R of Congo Embassy), you moved with you are at knowing full well that businesses were allowed to set up shop on 14th Street. You had a choice to live there or not. If you didn't want to live that close to where businesses and all their externalities exist, you could have bought elsewhere ... such as near the Toutorsky Mansion ... where the zoning is supposed to guarantee that they don't exist.

You see, it's not a matter of what you think or what I think would be a tolerable use of that property. It's a matter of what the adjoining neighbors have a legal expectation for it to be given what the zoning there is. And the zoning there is residential.

by Lance on Dec 12, 2011 9:06 am • linkreport

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