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).

Toutorsky Mansion before changes. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

One of the biggest worries was that the yard would turn into permanent parking. At first, Congo representatives said the ambassador would park his car there permanently. DC regulations prohibit parking cars in public space, and existing circular driveways can only be used for pick-up and drop-off, not car storage.

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.

Photo by Rick Busch.

Recently, neighbors noticed that the embassy was paving its front yard after all. Worse yet, they paved the entire front yard, even more than in the original application. They took out all 3 mature trees.

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.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.