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Congo wants circular driveway at 16th and Riggs

The Republic of the Congo has purchased the historic Toutorsky Mansion at 16th and Riggs, NW, and is requesting permission to replace much of the front yard with a circular driveway. The embassy can function in the space without the driveway, and DC should deny that element.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

The 18-room house, built in 1894 for for Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown, writer of the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding segregation until a later decision ironically bearing the name of Brown in 1954.

Since then the building has been used by the Persian government; the US nonprofit that pushed for the creation of Israel; a music academy run by Russian nobleman Basil Peter Toutorsky; Johns Hopkins University; and most recently as a bed and breakfast which drew neighborhood opposition. The BZA limited the B&B to 6 rooms instead of 10 in 2001.

The Republic of the Congo should not be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire), which owns a different mansion at 18th and New Hampshire. That building was the subject of a different historic preservation debate after neglect threatened to destroy the building. Local and citywide preservation groups successfully pushed the DRC government to restore the building.

As Borderstan reports, the Congo government plans to house the ambassador and employ 10 staff as well as "one small scale social function each month." They are not proposing any changes to the building itself, but want to make two changes to add vehicular capacity.

One change would turn a courtyard in the rear, facing a public alley, into a parking lot for 4 cars. That would remove part of the "historic" brick wall at the rear of the courtyard but seems generally unobjectionable, though a few neighbors are also opposing that because of concerns about adding traffic in the alley. There is also already a garage in the rear which can hold 2 cars.

The other would pave over most of the front yard and replace portions of the existing iron fence with motorized gates to create a circular driveway entering off 16th and exiting onto Riggs.

The Congo proposal for the Toutorsky Mansion. Click to enlarge (PDF).

These driveways interrupt the pedestrian realm and embassies typically use them for extra parking. In fact, an attorney for the Congo said yesterday that the embassy intends to have the ambassador park his car there each day and leave it there all day.

This happens despite the law prohibiting parking in public space. The entire front yard is public space, as the property line itself is beyond the top of the front stairs leading into the building. This would turn a beautiful yard and fence into a space that's just more roadway.

The 16th Street curb cut also would intersect part of a bus stop used by the S bus lines, and the attorney said he expected the bus stop would have to be moved. These curb cut locations clearly violate the DDOT policies about the placement of curb cuts needing to be 50 feet from an intersection.

Finally, while the drawing shows the existing trees remaining, people have pointed out that construction in the root zone of oak trees almost always kills the trees. Also, I went by the property, and the driveway appears to intersect at least one tree, whose actual location doesn't quite match what's shown on this plan.

Zoning decisions about chanceries are handled by the Foreign Mission Board of Zoning Adjustment, which includes the regular Board of Zoning Adjustment as well as members from NCPC and the National Park Service. The FMBZA is traditionally very deferential to embassies, sometimes gently encouraging changes but not actually disapproving applications.

The FMBZA also gets to make some decisions ordinarily given to other boards. For example, changes to a historic building (as this is) normally also go through the HPRB, but according to the Congo attorney, for foreign missions the FMBZA makes that call as well instead of the HPRB.

I haven't been able to find out definitively if the FMBZA makes the final decision about whether to grant the curb cuts, or if the DDOT Public Space Committee still has that power, as they do for other cases. I've been told that, in fact, the FMBZA also has the power to grant the circular driveway if they choose.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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A big, glaring NO to the circular driveway. This is a historic home & the yard is part of it. Make the street parking in front for diplomats only, but the yard & fence need to stay. It's part of the original home.

by John Thompson on Jan 12, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport

Oh - and the request for tearing up the courtyard for parking behind the home should be denied as well. If the embassy doesn't like it, they should have thought twice about buying such a beautiful historic property, thinking that they could do these things.

by John Thompson on Jan 12, 2011 10:46 am • linkreport

This one get's a Heck No! This is one of the jewels of DC's heritage. For as much as we make fun of the Hysterical Preservationists, count me as one of them. I know there's no GW slept there going on here, but the subtle charm and grace of this mansion ought to be preserved at all cost. Please!

by Thayer-D on Jan 12, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

Sounds to me that the neighbors shouldn't have fought the B&B from trying to open there. What a wonderful use for that property it would have been. These ANC's have got to stop fighting every business that tries to open. We are going to end up with neighborhoods full of empty shells because of small-minded individuals using the lame "not another Adams Morgan" concern for any business that tries to open.

by Scott on Jan 12, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

@John Thompson If the embassy doesn't like it, they should have thought twice about buying such a beautiful historic property, thinking that they could do these things.

The reason embassies seek out these kind of residential properties and then turn them into 'office buildings with flags' as David Catania famously said back when he was an ANC Chair in the heavily chancery-leaden Sheridan Kalorama, is that there is a great financial incentive to do so. Commercial properties, where you'd expect an office function (i.e., chancery) for an embassy to be located are far more expensive than residences which only the embassies can so easily convert over to office use. The difference are a magnitude of many. And we can expect this to happen with increasing frequency in Dupont in the coming years. The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood, after trying to 'hold the line' for years on the saturation of these 'office buildings with flags' amongst residences, successfully lobbied to have the comprehensive 'steer' new embassies to 16th Street NW (from Dupont to something like Mt. Pleasant), New Hampshire Avenue ... and Southwest and the International Compound off of Van Ness Street in NW. I.e., After many years of dealing with this problem, they've managed to shift it to other neighborhoods. We really need to look at the big picture here. This will be just the first of many embassies looking to tear down historic front gates and yards, historic back gardens, etc. ... The 'other' Congo embassy on New Hampshire which still sits unfinished on New Hampshire is indicative of the types of problems Sheridan-Kalorama dealt with for years. Incidentally, back when I was involved in this process up in Sheridan-Kalorama, I'd always ask the ambassador (who ofter showed for our ANC meetings) whether he'd (or she'd) maybe consider using the building as their Ambassadorial residence instead. Invariably I'd get a lot of hemming and hawing and when I'd ask where their Ambassadorial residence was, more times than not it was in Va. (McClean) or MD (Potomac.) ...

The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood learned to 'just say no' because it realized that turning front yards --- and back gardens --- in residential neighborhoods into Office Building parking lots was not good for the neighborhood. Who wants to live next door to an office building where there's no one there at night and all you have are flourescent lights, large trash bins, and all the other things that belong in commercial areas and not in areas zoned residential. I hope Dupont can just learn to say 'no' too ... unequivocal 'no' ... And like you point out, why should we let them turn back gardens into office building parking lots. If they find that a house in a residential neighborhood isn't adequate for their office needs, maybe there's a good reason for that.

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

I would've thought our overzealous DHS Police State Apparatus would discourage parking so close to an embassy.

by OX4 on Jan 12, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

In general, the embassies and diplomats in this town do whatever they please without consequence, so what's to stop them from building it anyway, even if they are denied permission to do so?

by Ron on Jan 12, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

I hate myself a little for doing this, but the demonym here is "Congolese" not "Congo." It is the Congolese government and the Congolese embassy, not the Congo government or Congo embassy. Replace the word Congo with Canada and see if it makes sense. If the word Canadian sounds better, you need to use Congolese. Sorry. I had to say that.

by David C on Jan 12, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

@Ron, you're correct and that's a big part of the issue. Technically, they are subject to all the same building codes, fire codes, zoning restrictions etc. And their sovereignty only extends to things such as politically we can't go in and do things there like we would in a non-ambassadorial property. BUT, for example, they're supposed to let in building code enforces. And 'supposed to' is key here to understand the issue. If they don't want to ... or say if once they're in they want to pave the front yard even after being told 'no', there's little leverage that the State Dept can excercise on them. The US needs to count on them for things in their country. And a zoning infraction would have to become an international incident for the State Dept (or us govt) to enforce these obligations ... which of course, the State Dept knows better than to do. So, once approved, and they are in there, we have absolutely no control. Hence why Sheridan-Kalorama always tried to make it as difficult as possible to get in in the first place. And now I can see why they had to do that.

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

Doesn't the State Dept sometimes get involved in these things and weigh in with "recommendations" based on whether the US gov't needs something from that country?

Terrible shame the neighbors shot down the B&B plans since that house is perfect for it. Sucks for them that they're not going to get stuck with something far worse, at least aesthetically.

by Fritz on Jan 12, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

Which Congo got to keep the dilapidated, never quite properly cared for house at 16th and Colorado? Proper care of existing structures should be a prerequisite for permission to upgrade new structures.

by Horse on Jan 12, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

Fritz, I wasn't in Dupont at the time, but I'd suspect the neighbors opposed this hotel on the same grounds we now oppose the embassy altering the yard, etc. By right anyone can establish a B&B in their house ... provided it's really a B&B ... i.e., the property owner lives there and manages it and there are no more than six rooms and there are a capped number of employees. It's supposed to be a 'home occupation'. The reason the applicant (who incidentally is the same applicant this time around ... given that the Congolese haven't bought the property yet ... and are waiting on approval first) needed an exception was that he was proposing a hotel for that site ... with 10 rooms ... and events. The hotel would bring with it many of the same problems as an embassy ... probably more ... given that this emabassy will only have 10 employees. Again, it's the same issue. Someone paying a 'house' price for a property, and then trying to convert it over to commercial use because it's far cheaper than actually buying a commercial property in a commercially zoned area.

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 12:01 pm • linkreport

@Horse, it's the same Congolese as the ones seeking to buy the Toutorsky Mansion.

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

Under what legal authority does DC have any control over this? The embassy is foreign soil, and Congo can do as it pleases. Is there a treaty where Congo ceded the right to control aspects of its embassy to the District of Columbia?

by Mark on Jan 12, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

Under the Foreign Missions Act. First of all, Republic of the Congo doesn't own it yet, they just have entered into a conditional contract to possibly buy it.

If a foreign nation does own property, it's their soil for purposes of things like law enforcement, but that doesn't give them the right to build a 99-story tower on it, blast loud music at all hours, and emit heavily toxic pollution.

The zoning requires approval to locate a foreign mission in a residential district, and so they need that approval. The federal Foreign Missions Act provides for this FMBZA process to review them; they're almost always granted, but sometimes the FMBZA asks the mission to make some changes.

Also, even if they do get approval and it becomes their soil in a manner of speaking, the front yard is not. The property line is just outside the facade of the building. The front yard is public space, not their property, just as the southbound lanes of 16th Street adjacent to the building are also not their property.

Due to DC's odd legal structure for yards, they would own a fence enclosing some public space, but not the space itself. DC therefore continues to have power to grant or deny building things in that space, including driveways. Also, the sidewalks are outside the fence and are public space, and DC has authority over whether someone can cut into the curbs to create vehicular passages across the public sidewalk or not.

by David Alpert on Jan 12, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

@Mark, see my comment above about sovereignty ... It's a common misconception that embassy property is 'foreign soil' in all respects. It's not. Via whatever international agreements govern this (Geneva Convention?) the embassy gets to treat it as foreign soil for certain aspects such as giving refuge to people looking to escape the host country and other 'political' reasons. But not in regards to following the buidling code and all these non-political matters. However, from a practical standpoint, it may as well be foreign soil because if they don't want to play, who's going to enforce their running by the rules? In the case of smaller embassies such as these, the State Dept probably does have some leverage over them in that they probably rely on US grants and the like in their countries. But all it takes is one 'need' on the part of the US (such as post-911 our needing new securer embassies abroad) and we can indeed be held hostage by a small nation. When given the choice of being sure DC law is enforced or our getting a new piece of land to build a more secure embassy ... guess which need is going to win out?

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

You'd think they'd want to comply voluntarily just as a PR move. An embassy is a highly visible manifestation of the country that owns it.

I remember there was what looked like an Embassy at 22nd & R Sts NE, where they'd covered the grounds between the sidewalk and the exterior with asphalt, drew crude diagonal parking lines, and had hand-painted names like "Col Mengistu" directly on the masonry of the side of the building with what looked like spray paint. Some of the names had been partially crossed out, and other names painted over them, as though there were a coup occurring every fortnight. I remember driving past with my girlfriend at the time, and her remarking, "Can you even imagine what a *dump* that country must be?"

We had a bit of a laugh at the image of whatever tin-pot dictator happened to have seized the reins of power that week coming to America for a visit, seeing the state of the Embassy building, and just knocking folks' heads together.

C'mon people, have a bit of self-respect. Do you want to be like the French, or like those guys?

by oboe on Jan 12, 2011 1:19 pm • linkreport

@oboe: Re PR moves - Well, it's not like most people really know the difference between one Congo and the other one.

by Fritz on Jan 12, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Oboe, I think you mean NW (and not NE) ... and that was the Pakistani Embassy. It literally took our sending troops to their part of the world to get them to relocate to the Van Ness International Center. I'm of course kidding about the reason for the troops going over there, but not kidding that it took our being in a position of power on that side of the world before they'd do anything about the way that embassy looked. And as for their having an incentive ... Do you think the lawmakers on Capital Hill (or the President) really care what the embassy here looks like when dealing with them?

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

Well, it's not like most people really know the difference between one Congo and the other one.

No one knows who I am either, but I still wipe my ass, brush my teeth, and shower on occasion.


by oboe on Jan 12, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

I have removed a comment by a commenter going by "Jay Fisette" (not the real Jay Fisette), which used insulting namecalling.

It's against GGW's rules (which we're working on codifying) to call names and also to impersonate public officials.

by David Alpert on Jan 12, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

Okay, I had the wrong European city (ending in an A)

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

The Persian government? Were they using it to store spices and concubines?

by Stephen Smith on Jan 12, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

I don't know, but according to Wikipedia that was 1924-1927, before the country was internationally referred to as Iran.

by David Alpert on Jan 12, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

It would make a fine Dutch Embassy building given its Dutch gables ;)

... and of course, the Dutch would all either take the Metro or ride their bikes there ... solving the circular drive/parking problem.

by Lance on Jan 12, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

The Dutch (God bless them) would find it too cliche. Unfortunatley.

by Thayer-D on Jan 13, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

So is public input considered in these hearings?

Does anyone know the contract price?

by Ken on Jan 14, 2011 7:32 am • linkreport

Looks like the hearing has been postponed until early March now that the buyer has altered their plans and renderings at the last minute. Anyone have access to the new plans they submitted at the FMBZA hearing on Feb. 8th?

Anyone opposing this can write a letter for submission to the ANC. The more voices heard against the Congolese ruining another historic property, the better!

by Chris on Feb 9, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

Chris, the price is 3.5MM. The Congo outbid a nice couple by 1.5MM, who actually started to restore the building's integrity while living in it for the past year, They were used by the trustee and the former owner as a stalking horse to get more money. They were going to restore the space and use it for community performing arts and piano lessons. No good deed goes unpunished.

by Marcy Baldinger on Feb 9, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

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