Staff Editorial: City liaison should handle diplomatic issues

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

As the saying goes, you can’t beat city hall. But it’s even harder to beat the U.S. Department of State.

That’s the lesson that many Sheridan-Kalorama residents have learned from decades of dealing with blighted properties and other issues with their diplomatic neighbors.

In most cases, if your neighbor doesn’t regularly mow his grass, it’s relatively simple for you to request a visit from D.C. code enforcement officers. If an ordinary neighbor leaves her house vacant for an extended period of time, she’s likely to be charged a higher tax rate and to have the property seized if she doesn’t pay it. And if, in the worst of cases, your neighbor’s property has deteriorated to the point at which it endangers your own, the District government is generally empowered to address the unsafe conditions.

But if your neighbor is a foreign government, then you often don’t enjoy these same protections. Once a property has won foreign mission status from the State Department, overgrown grass or falling shingles are no longer merely a matter of municipal ordinances. Rather, they become part of the broader international relations between the United States and the landowner — and are generally given short shrift.

Sheridan-Kalorama, located between Rock Creek Park and Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida avenues NW, is most frequently in the news for its roster of VIP residents, which now includes the Obama family, Ivanka Trump, Amazon.com owner Jeff Bezos and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But for decades, it’s also been a go-to spot for embassies, ambassador’s residences and other foreign mission functions.

Unfortunately, many of the foreign countries owning property in Sheridan-Kalorama have fallen on hard times at times. Argentina saw economic collapse. Egypt went through political turmoil. And other nations, including Sri Lanka, Serbia and Pakistan, ended up with buildings they didn’t need or couldn’t maintain.

The two members of Sheridan-Kalorama’s advisory neighborhood commission, ANC 2D, are well-versed in the issues associated with foreign missions. But these volunteer community members are no match for the State Department.

Accordingly, we would like to see a high-level city official designated as the District’s official liaison to the State Department regarding diplomatic issues such as reserved parking and neighborhood eyesores owned by foreign governments. This individual would also serve as the community’s point of contact — someone who is paid to serve D.C. residents, and whose job title is more significant to federal officials. We believe this approach would be more effective and fair than relying on desperate community members to shoulder the burden.

Even if city hall can’t beat the State Department, at least the playing field would be more level and the responsibility wouldn’t be dumped almost entirely on concerned citizens.