Norton pushes State Department to act on vacant foreign missions

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The former Iraqi ambassadorial residence sits vacant at 3110 Woodland Drive NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently moved to Sheridan-Kalorama, he’s seldom seen wandering around his new neighborhood. But if he were to take a walk, he might notice a chronic problem that’s particularly prevalent in this Ward 2 community: abandoned foreign missions falling into disrepair.

Late last month, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter to Tillerson citing concerns about the growing number of vacant missions across the city and requesting a meeting with him or another State Department official within 30 days. Norton said in an interview Tuesday that she hasn’t yet received a response.

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Norton said she learned about the volume of abandoned foreign missions in D.C. from an Aug. 2 article in The Current. Norton implored constituents and elected officials to inform her office about such properties going forward.

“There needs to be as many of us involved [as possible],” Norton said. “There are a number of different ways to approach this that have not been used or have been underused.”

According to Norton, a number of existing laws should prevent missions from falling into disrepair. In Norton’s Aug. 28 letter, she cited the 1982 Foreign Missions Act as an example, which states that the secretary of state should “require foreign missions to comply substantially with District of Columbia building and related codes in a manner determined by the Secretary to be not inconsistent with the international obligations of the United States.”

Across the city, a number of abandoned foreign missions have loomed for years, with their diplomatic privileges firmly intact. The former Sri Lankan Embassy at 2148 Wyoming Ave. NW, the former Serbian Embassy at 2221 R St. NW and the former residence of the Iraqi ambassador at 3110 Woodland Drive NW have all retained diplomatic statuses despite long spells of vacancy.

Pakistan’s former embassy sits at 22nd and R streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

The State Department has rescinded diplomatic privileges on occasion. A long-abandoned Argentine mission at 2136 R St. NW had its status revoked in the late 1980s. Former Pakistani properties at 2201 R St. NW and at 2315 Massachusetts Ave. NW, each abandoned for years, had their diplomatic statuses revoked within the last few years. And because the Pakistani government did not pay its local property taxes — waived for valid diplomatic properties but not other foreign-owned properties — both were sold during the District’s annual tax sale in July.

But rescinding a property’s diplomatic status does not always suffice. Due to complicated tax laws, abandoned diplomatic properties without status are charged regular property or commercial rates — only a fraction of the charges imposed upon most vacant or blighted residences. The same applies even when they’re located in a residential area such as Sheridan-Kalorama.

Norton said she feels the city should charge abandoned foreign missions a higher tax rate than it does, and she is considering the legalities of doing so. She plans to send a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asking city officials to consider such a statute.

Over the years, various D.C. elected officials have individually implored the State Department to address the problem, either by pressuring foreign governments to repair and return to a property, or by revoking diplomatic privileges. 

Since her tenure as commissioner began in 2013, Ellen Goldstein of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2D (Sheridan-Kalorama) said she has sent letters and held meetings with State Department officials to little avail.

“It’s like scratching your left ear with your right toe,” Goldstein said of her efforts. To Goldstein, State Department officials “have one tool” — rescinding diplomatic status — “and they’re very reluctant to use it.”

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans, whose area includes the majority of D.C. embassies, said he has also lobbied the department over the years with little success. In an interview, Evans said he is hopeful that Norton’s action will result in some change. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Evans said. “I think it’s fantastic.”

There are foreign missions scattered throughout the District. Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh also has a significant diplomatic presence in her jurisdiction, including the former Iraqi ambassadorial residence. After learning of concerns there, Cheh lodged an inquiry with the State Department. Construction workers have since appeared on the property, indicating that it would be repaired.

Meanwhile, Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd has received “a high volume of complaints” from constituents about an Egyptian-owned property on 5500 16th St. NW. Todd sent the State Department a letter on June 7 asking them to pressure Egyptian officials to repair the abandoned property, citing safety hazards.

“It is my hope that upon review of the significantly deteriorated condition of the property and the resulting discontent from neighbors, the U.S. Department of State will take appropriate actions to encourage the Egyptian Government to make improvements to the property,” Todd wrote in the letter.

The long-vacant Argentine-owned row house at 2136 R St. NW is one of many abandoned foreign missions in the Sheridan-Kalorama area. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

According to a State Department official, “matters of reciprocity” must be considered when dealing with foreign missions. “Our constant goal is to identify the most effective strategy for achieving the desired corrective actions, which generally are for the mission to re-occupy or sell the associated property,” the official wrote in an email.

In Norton’s view, District officials and Congress don’t face the same diplomatic challenges.

“The State Department has a number of different issues to consider when dealing with a foreign party,” she said. “Well, we don’t have to consider those.”

For Sheridan-Kalorama resident Alan Wurtzel, the issue of abandoned missions isn’t theoretical, it’s personal — and has been haunting him for more than two decades. The abandoned Argentine former mission borders his four-story R Street home, and over the years Wurtzel has repeatedly appealed to Argentine and U.S. officials alike to repair the decrepit property. In an interview, Wurtzel said he was encouraged by Norton’s letter. 

“I think it’s terrific,” Wurtzel said. “It puts pressure on the Argentinian government and the State Department. But it will take more time.”