Posts about Embassies
The Republic of the Congo has begun removing its unauthorized paving at the insistence of DDOT and the State Department, and DDOT restored a pedestrian walkway on Irving Street after residents complained. Let's thank our public officials for getting these small but important neighborhood issues fixed.
Over at 16th and Corcoran, the Congo had a deadline of December 17, Saturday, to de-pave the front yard of the Toutorsky Mansion they made their embassy earlier this year. On that day, Dupont Conservancy member Rich Busch took the below right photo of crews removing the concrete.
DDOT sent the Congo and the State Department a letter a month ago, finding that the paving violated DC regulations. That was the basis for the State Department's follow-up letter telling the Congo to take the paving out.
Another successful fix comes from Mount Pleasant, where ANC commissioner Jack McKay alerted us recently to a change that had destroyed the pedestrian walkway along Irving Street. This section, where Irving climbs from Adams Mill Road along the edge of Rock Creek up into the neighborhood, has high-speed traffic and no sidewalk.
...that bit of road is also a vital pedestrian link between a bus stop and the Harvard Towers, a 193-unit DCHA structure housing mostly the aged and the disabled. Being aged and/or disabled, the residents mostly take the bus, and for years walked in the street, into oncoming traffic, to reach this bus stop.Recently, the jersey barrier was moved over, creating a less crash-prone arrangement for the speeding cars but blocking the path for pedestrians.
But in 2006 the Mount Pleasant ANC persuaded DDOT to build a temporary barrier of jersey wall, creating a safe pedestrian passageway to that bus stop. (The ANC also purchased a bench for that bus stop, which DDOT installed so that those folks would no longer have to sit on an uncomfortable guard rail while awaiting the bus.)
Initially there was a series of posts in the street to guide drivers away from that jersey barrier and into the traffic lane. The posts gradually vanished, amputated by careless drivers. That left the jersey wall barrier exposed in the street, with only the post mounting hump remaining to direct cars away from it.
Was this a misguided DDOT crew thinking they were making the road "safer"? We don't know, but after being alerted to the situation, DDOT restored the jersey barriers to their correct spots and added one of the sand-filled crash barrels.
This stretch of road still feels like a highway, and crash barrels are more usually seen on high-speed highways than local streets, but making the roadways in and around Rock Creek Park more hospitable to all modes is a longer-term issue that will involve additional significant changes from both DDOT and the National Park Service. Meanwhile, it's great that residents can at least walk safely to their bus stop.
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.
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.Seagroves adds that he recently toured the interior and feels the Republic of Congo has been taking great care to restore the property.
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.
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.
The embassy of the Republic of the Congo has removed trees and paved over the entire front yard of their new building, breaking promises they made when asking for permission to relocate to 16th and Riggs.
Photo by Rick Busch.
This past January, the Republic of the Congo agreed to purchase the Toutorsky Mansion at 16th and Riggs to house their embassy, previously located in Crestwood. The Congo initially asked to create a circular driveway in the front yard, which was then grass and enclosed by an iron fence.
Neighbors and DDOT (and I) opposed the idea, saying it wasn't necessary and was bad for transportation. The State Department said that it saw no security need for the driveway.
The building already has a garage in the rear, and the Congo got approval to turn a walled-off rear yard into parking as well. The circular driveway would lead to curb cuts too close to the corner than regulations allow, and would force moving a bus stop (though some people who ride the bus said moving the stop would be welcome).
However, many embassies do park cars in their driveways, and even though that territory is still technically public space rather than part of the property, there's nothing DC can do about it.
Further, there are 3 mature trees on the property, and while the driveway proposal avoided the trees, people experienced with construction pointed out that building a driveway would very likely kill the trees.
Wanting to move ahead quickly with the application, the Congo withdrew its request for the circular driveway, and the Foreign Mission Board of Zoning Adjustment, which rules on applications to locate embassies, approved the application without any permission for curb cuts or paving in public space.
This doesn't add in the curb cuts themselves and cars can't get into the paved yard (so far, anyway), but it still creates the same visual blight or worse than the initial application, which showed the yard remaining unpaved (except for the driveway) and the trees remaining.
It also breaks promises made during the hearing. According to Jack Jacobson, the ANC Commissioner for the area who attended the zoning hearing, one of the Congo's expert witnesses, local preservationist Emily Eig, testified that the only changes to the property were to add the parking in the rear, restore the building, and add the flagpole.
The Dupont Circle Conservancy sent a letter to the Department of State and the DC Zoning Administrator asking them to insist that the Congo remove the paving, restore the yard, and replant mature trees.
The Congo needs to be held to its promises in its zoning application and in its testimony at the zoning hearing. If the State Department won't do that, then any zoning applications for locating embassies will have no meaning; any foreign government can simply promise whatever residents and government agencies ask, get control of the property, then do whatever they wish. That will make neighborhoods fight even unobjectionable applications, fearing the consequences.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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