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Congo withdraws curb cut requests

The Republic of the Congo has withdrawn its request to build a circular driveway or a shorter one-way driveway in front of the property at 16th and Riggs where it hopes to move its embassy from Crestwood.

Image from Wikimedia.

At a hearing Tuesday before the Foreign Missions Board of Zoning Adjustment, the ambassador from the Republic of the Congo and his DC attorneys said they would modify their request to only include one curb cut, off Riggs Place, and a short "one-way" driveway (a driveway with only one entrance) instead of a full circular driveway.

They also offered to remove the existing curb cut to the garage toward the rear of the property, and promised that while the ambassador would use the driveway to arrive and depart, his car would not stay parked during the day.

Republic of the Congo request as of Tuesday morning, now withdrawn.

However, DC agencies and neighbors continued to oppose the driveway plan. It violates DDOT's and historic preservation policies against approving new curb cuts, and several pointed out that there would be no way to enforce the rules against parking there once the property became a chancery.

The representative from the State Department, in announcing support for locating the chancery in this building, also said that there was no specific security issue that would require new curb cuts for either a circular or one-way driveway.

Yesterday, the Republic of the Congo withdrew its driveway request entirely. Presumably they will use the existing curb cut and garage for pick-up and drop-off for the ambassador.

They are eager to get approval because they are purchasing the property on short sale, and approval expires in early March. They announced the one-way driveway proposal the morning of the FMBZA hearing, and that board continued the hearing to March 8 to get ANC, historic preservation, DDOT and other comments on the modification.

Without this driveway, there is little standing in the way of gaining approval.

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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David, It's the Republic of the Congo ... and not the Dem. Rep. of the Congo (which owns the building at 1800 N.H.) ... different countries.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2011 9:51 am • linkreport

Oops, I thought I got them all right this time. Fixed.

by David Alpert on Feb 10, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

@David Without this driveway, there is little standing in the way of gaining approval.

I respectfully disagree with this statement.

Section 4306 from the Foreign Missions Act of 1982 sets out the criteria for the FMBZA to permit a chancery (i.e., 'office use part of an embassy') to locate in a residentially zoned property.

Given the state of their current chancery in Crestwood (which was constructed in 1961), criteria (d)(2) cannot reasonably be met. Historic properties are much more expensive and harder to maintain than are modern ones such as their current chancery at Colorado and 16th Street. That embassy which is less than 50 years old is in such bad shape that even a simple drive by confirms missing gutters (and other building elements which are essential to the maintainence of a property) as well as peeling paint and the like. If past actions (or lack thereof) can be taken to indicate future actions (or lack thereof) with respect to this treasured historic resource in Dupont Circle, the FMBZA would be remiss in upholding their responsibilities if it didn't deny the change request based on (d)(2) below alone:

d) Criteria for determination

Any determination concerning the location of a chancery under subsection (b)(2) of this section, or concerning an appeal of an administrative decision with respect to a chancery based in whole or in part upon any zoning regulation or map, shall be based solely on the following criteria:

(1) The international obligation of the United States to facilitate the provision of adequate and secure facilities for foreign missions in the Nation’s Capital.
(2) Historic preservation, as determined by the Board of Zoning Adjustment in carrying out this section; and in order to ensure compatibility with historic landmarks and districts, substantial compliance with District of Columbia and Federal regulations governing historic preservation shall be required with respect to new construction and to demolition of or alteration to historic landmarks.
(3) The adequacy of off-street or other parking and the extent to which the area will be served by public transportation to reduce parking requirements, subject to such special security requirements as may be determined by the Secretary, after consultation with Federal agencies authorized to perform protective services.
(4) The extent to which the area is capable of being adequately protected, as determined by the Secretary, after consultation with Federal agencies authorized to perform protective services.
(5) The municipal interest, as determined by the Mayor of the District of Columbia.
(6) The Federal interest, as determined by the Secretary.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2011 10:06 am • linkreport

I agree with Lance. Is there any guarantee that this historic property won't end up dilapidated like their current building in Crestwood? If not, I don't see how this could be approved.

by Adam L on Feb 10, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

The FMBZA is generally very, very reluctant to disapprove chanceries. In fact, I asked someone from OP about it once and they said they essentially never disapprove them. All they do is push gently to make modifications.

Getting the driveway out of there is the kind of thing they could probably push for; saying no entirely is probably not, as long as Congo is willing to accommodate changes, and by dropping the driveway it seems they have been.

I'd prefer a B&B (even the previously-suggested more busy one) to a chancery personally, since chanceries don't contribute that much to the community and provide enforcement headaches, but I doubt it's realistic to hope that they're denied at this point.

by David Alpert on Feb 10, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

@David, I don't disagree with you that the chances for denial are low. I can't say I know of one instance where they denied an application. BUT my experience with this is all pre-Social Media ... I will say I have heard of instances where the embassy themselves backed out because the neighbors had made it clear they wouldn't be welcome converting a neighboring house into an 'office building with a flag'. Also, from what I know about the FMBZA members, they are all appointees ... and with 2 exceptions (the 2 federal interests representative) they're basically local 'activists' (i.e., like you and me) who's training isn't in law ... BUT who will want to do the right thing. And I can't help but wonder if the Social Media couldn't be used in this instance to help remind them to follow the law ... i.e., deny this application based on the Historic Preservation criteria not being met. In the past the HPRB never denied an application because it was basically them, a few local organizations, and the State Department in a room. The Social Media could make the dinamics different this time around. I mean, it would be harder for the FMBZA to blatantly disregard their legal responsibilities if the whole world knew they were doing so. And how could anyone in their right mind argue that letting the Congo go into that historic treasure of a building isn't a serious risk to the preservation and conservation of that building given what this same embassy has done to brand new quarters up on Colorado Avenue?

by Lance on Feb 10, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

Lance: But how are the preservation criteria not being met?

HPO said, "we're okay with a chancery, and okay with the rear parking, just not okay with the front driveway, and want the property restored." Now they've backed off the driveway, and promised to restore the property.

Can FMBZA really deny it because some people think they will fail to restore the property properly?

by David Alpert on Feb 10, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

@David Can FMBZA really deny it because some people think they will fail to restore the property properly?

They can if those people are the FMBZA. Actually, they 'must' if those people are the FMBZA. And the operative word isn't 'restore' but instead 'preserve'.

The FMBZA has a duty to deny the change in use if they think that allowing the change in use will cause the property to not be 'substantially' preserved. Preserving a historic property requires lots of money, lots of effort, and the will to do it. And I'm only talking about maintaining what is there ... not about 'restoration'. The ill-maintained shape that the current chancery is in should in most peoples' minds be a good indicator that that the Congo will neither put in the money, the time, or the effort to properly maintain the property. Already, they've announced that they only plan to spend $2 million on the restoration. Architects at the Conservancy meeting the other night said that even a cursory look at the exterior makes it clear that that figure is far from sufficient to handle even the immediate needs necessary to preserve the building such as the re-pointing and new roof it is immediately in need of.

It's not a matter of speculation that the Congo won't be maintaining the property, it's a matter of closing ones eyes to think that it will. It's already specifically said that it won't ... just by saying it's only committing $2 Million to the effort.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

I don't think "these seem like bad people so we don't trust them to preserve the property" is a plausible exercise of government authority.

by David desJardins on Feb 10, 2011 8:15 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins, No one has a 'right' to use a residential property for business purpose ... not even embassies. The law however lets an exception be made, i.e., a special priviledge be granted, to an embassy to do so ... if it can meet the 5 criteria set forth in the law allowing this exception/priviledge. The fact that this particular embassy does not qualify on the grounds of one of these criteria has nothing to do with it being 'good' or being 'bad' ... just that it doesn't qualify to be a good steward of a historically significant property, and being able to qualify as such is a requirement under the law.

And if the HPRB does not deny based on the failure of this embassy to meet this criteria for qualification, than it is being remiss in its responsibility to uphold the law.

by Lance on Feb 10, 2011 11:25 pm • linkreport

Everyone has a right to due process under law. That means government actions which are not arbitrary or capricious. I think it is arbitrary and capricious for government to get into the business of deciding who they do or do not trust to engage in an adequate level of historic preservation in the future. I understand the concern, I just don't think you can responsibly address it by speculating about who you do or don't think will be responsible in the future.

by David desJardins on Feb 10, 2011 11:46 pm • linkreport

@David desJardins I just don't think you can responsibly address it by speculating about who you do or don't think will be responsible in the future.

Okay, I can see your point. And it's reasonable. But doesn't the Foreign Missions Act require government to at least make a judgment if not out right speculate?

The Act specifically says that if the residence can't be converted over to a chancery (i.e., 'office building' for an embassy) without 'substantially' being in abidance with the historic preservation laws of the feds and DC, then the HPRB is to deny the request. In order for the HPRB ('government' in this case) to determine this, they have to make a judgment ... That judgement being: 'Will the use of this historic property by this particular embassy be such that it is 'substantially' in accordance with the historic preservation lasw of the feds and DC?' Which of course means that the HPRB must look at 'past performance' by this embassy? No?

by Lance on Feb 11, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

... or at a minimum .. look at what they are proposing to do. And this would include modifications to turn this historic residence into a modern office building AND the budget they're planning to put into it. (Which experts are deeming far too little for what is required to simply 'stabilize' the builing 'as is' ... Never mind doing all the 'residence' to 'office building' conversion work as well.) I mean, if you don't think we can 'look back' to make a judgment as to future performance, can we at least look forward and take as a given the plans they've put forward ... in determining if the 'substantial' abidence to federal and district historic preservation laws will occur?

by Lance on Feb 11, 2011 10:05 am • linkreport

I think it is reasonable to evaluate whether their plans and budget provide for an adequate level of historic preservation. That's different from declaring them bad actors based on a subjective assessment of how they cared for non-historic properties in the past.

I don't know whether their budget and plans are adequate, and it would be reasonable to hear testimony from experts.

Looking at the property, I'm somewhat doubtful that you are going to find someone else who's willing to put a lot more than $2 million into it. Certainly leaving it vacant doesn't do much for historic preservation. How much are they paying for the property?

by David desJardins on Feb 11, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

@ David desJardins, I don't believe the contract price is public information.

by Lance on Feb 11, 2011 8:14 pm • linkreport

It's described as a "short sale", and the amount of the mortgage should be public information, so that gives some kind of upper bound.

In any case, I still think it's unrealistic, unless you have an argument to the contrary, to find someone who's going to invest $4 or $5 million in restoring this property.

by David desJardins on Feb 11, 2011 8:35 pm • linkreport

A good chunk of the $2 million will have to go to converting a house into an office building ... specifically an office building with physical security and secure communications needs. Cabling, elevators, firewalls, secure communications rooms, furniture fit for am ambassador ... all those things could easily eat up most of that $2 million budget.

It would be interesting to know what the Scientologists spent down the street from this property. That would give a good estimate what it would cost to restore this building (adjusting for size and condition differences.)

by Lance on Feb 13, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

Lance, you claimed that the only acceptable historical reservation would spend more than $2 million on just exterior work like repointing and a new roof. That is what I consider wildly unreasonable.

by David desJardins on Feb 13, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

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