Photo by Rick Busch.

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.

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.

Seagroves adds that he recently toured the interior and feels the Republic of Congo has been taking great care to restore the property.

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.

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.