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The National Capital Planning Commission meeting last Thursday began like all of the commission’s meetings do: with a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. The NCPC has a funny sort of dual role. In charge of city planning for the District before the 1973 Home Rule Act transferred some of that power to the city government, the NCPC now has more amorphous responsibilities, overseeing mostly projects involving federally owned land in the capital region while still retaining some control over local planning. Its membership consists of a mix of presidential appointees, mayoral appointees, and the heads of various congressional committees and executive-branch departments.
But as the commission’s ritual invocation indicates—and as the recent debate over the Height Act confirmed, when the NCPC rejected the city’s plea for the power to erect taller buildings in favor of preserving views of the federal monuments—its primary allegiance is to the government of the United States.
Thursday’s meeting concerned one of the peculiarities of life in the national capital: the role played by foreign embassies. According to the NCPC, there are approximately 185 countries with foreign missions in the District. And these institutions serve not only as representatives of their countries to the U.S. government, but also as neighbors.
No neighborhood has as high a concentration of embassies as Kalorama, just north of Dupont Circle. There are close to 60 embassy offices, or chanceries, in Kalorama, around a third of the city’s total, packed into an area that’s only about five blocks square. Neighbors say the number of chanceries has increased in recent years, with new arrivals like the Serbian embassy that took over an R Street NW building in 2011 and the Malawian embassy that returned to Massachusetts Avenue NW five years ago after having left following a 2003 fire.
You’d think embassies would be rather desirable neighbors. They’re nothing like the nightclubs or noisy restaurants that typically draw residents’ objections. They pay for their own security and keep the surroundings safe. They can’t throw sloppy all-night ragers without risking an international incident. And even without the embassies, the neighborhood is well represented by the black-limo set, with residents like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (whose house is up for sale, with an asking price of $4.5 million), D.C. congressional overlord Darrell Issa, and perennial presidential candidate and recent D.C. gadfly Ralph Nader.
But nonresidential uses in residential neighborhoods are rarely welcomed with open arms. Just look at the gated Hillandale community near Georgetown, whose denizens threw a fit when neighbor Janet Yellen became Federal Reserve chairwoman, upset by her security detail’s large vans and “doughnut bellies.” So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the residents of Kalorama aren’t thrilled with the presence of all these embassies.
The result is yet another conflict between the federal interest and local concerns in the District. This time, it’s the diplomatic corps against a group we might as well call NEMBYs: No Embassies in My Back Yard.
“It’s a difficult set of properties to manage,” says Doug LaBossiere, who’s lived in Kalorama, also known as Sheridan-Kalorama or Kalorama Heights, for about 16 years, “and we feel it threatens the viability of this as a residential neighborhood because it breaks the neighborhood up.”
LaBossiere and other neighbors cite a litany of concerns. The chanceries have dedicated parking spaces, which are often unused at night, taking up spots where residents would otherwise be able to park. But those spaces don’t suffice during the day, further clogging street parking. The ambassadors’ residences draw fewer objections, but Saône Crocker, who’s lived in the neighborhood since 2004 and enjoys the diversity ambassadors’ residences bring, says some neighbors don’t like the fact that the residences take advantages of city services like trash collection without paying taxes.
“The problem with a chancery is it’s an office building,” says Christopher K. Chapin, president of the Sheridan-Kalorama Neighborhood Council. “And an office building ought to be in areas that are zoned for commercial. You can take an old house, and if you turn it into an office building, you have fluorescent ceiling lights. You have a building that is closed and dark at night.”
Brokering the peace between the diplomats and the NEMBYs are two agencies: the NCPC and the D.C. Office of Planning. Both have drafted new proposals, very similar to one another, to alter the formula for deciding where chanceries are permitted. But their interests aren’t completely aligned.
Currently, the policy follows a 1983 methodology known as the “one-third two-thirds rule,” which states that foreign missions can locate in low- or medium-density residential neighborhoods only if at least one-third of the block consists of commercial or other nonresidential uses. The recommendation adopted by the NCPC would “prioritiz[e] matter-of-right areas and the proposed foreign missions center for locating new chanceries” and create new guidelines for the approval of chanceries in residential areas.
But the federal priority of keeping foreign governments happy was still evident at the meeting. “Our first priority,” said NCPC planner Angela Mar Dupont, “is to fulfill our diplomatic obligation.”
At the same time, the D.C. Office of Planning drafted a recommendation for changing the embassy formula as part of its comprehensive rewrite of the city’s 1958 zoning code, subject to approval by the Zoning Commission. That proposal would eliminate the so-called diplomatic overlay, which restricts embassies to locating in certain neighborhoods like Kalorama, and instead open up the whole city. It would change the one-third two-thirds rule to a 50-50 rule, requiring new chanceries in residential neighborhoods to move onto blocks that are already at least half nonresidential in usage. And it would require any chanceries locating in residential areas to get the approval of the Foreign Missions Board of Zoning Adjustment, which actually exists.
Part of the motivation, says Office of Planning Interim Director Ellen McCarthy, is to try to push embassies to the planned chancery center on the Walter Reed campus near 16th Street NW. “We think that these changes will make them more interested in sites like the proposed new chancery center at Walter Reed,” she writes in an email. “There are just not that many spaces remaining in Sheridan-Kalorama that would be available.”
Of course, that also means the measure might not help Kalorama much. And if embassies continue to demonstrate a preference toward locating in residential neighborhoods like Kalorama, the change could actually push more of them to those neighborhoods. Raising the bar to 50 percent means eliminating some residential neighborhoods that might otherwise have been eligible for embassies, leaving blocks in places like Kalorama that are already full of them.
Any change might look like a solution in search of a problem, given that the world’s supply of countries—and thereby embassies—is finite, and new embassies won’t keep popping up like small-plates restaurants on 14th Street NW. (Existing embassies won’t be affected; only new ones will have to abide by the policy change.) But according to McCarthy, there’s good reason to update the policy.
“The issue is not so much that there are new countries, but, according to the State Department, there is a demand for larger and larger properties because chanceries are taking on greater roles in cultural affairs, trade and tourism promotion, etc.,” writes McCarthy. “So they outgrow their current building and want to either expand on site, reducing whatever buffer existed between them and the neighbors, or move to another larger building.”
As a State Department representative noted at the NCPC meeting, if D.C. were to try to restrict the size of foreign embassies here, other countries could reciprocate by trying to slash the space allotted to American embassies abroad—an international spat begat by NEMBYs. Don’t count on it.
And that’s not what the NEMBYs want. “I think we have to be very sensitive to the international aspect of this,” says Crocker, who grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and whose relatives have worked in the State Department. “I don’t think we should do anything that jeopardizes our relationship with any country.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery