'Only-in-DC' conundrum

2017-10-24 19:22
The entrance to the vacant Serbian embassy in Washington. (Alex Brandon, AFP)

The entrance to the vacant Serbian embassy in Washington. (Alex Brandon, AFP)

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Washington - The large building at the corner of 22nd and R streets in downtown Washington sticks out like a wart in the otherwise upscale neighbourhood.

Plywood covers the windows, sleeping bags and empty bottles litter the shuttered doorways and head-high weeds sprout through the asphalt of the empty fenced-off parking lot.

For a solid decade, neighbours and local political leaders complained bitterly about the condition of the former Pakistani consulate. But the city remained powerless to do anything as long as the building was classified by the State Department as a diplomatic property.

That diplomatic designation has since been revoked, according to the State Department, but the building still stands as perhaps the most egregious example of an only-in-DC phenomenon, where diplomatic protocol allows a string of abandoned buildings to fester, untouchable and tax-free.

"Residents, who themselves are under obligation to keep their properties in order, are complaining to me," said City Councillor Mary Cheh, whose Ward 3 contains several such problematic properties. "Unless the State Department is really committed to the issue, these countries can really string you along."

Cheh's office has compiled a partial list of vacant and neglected diplomatic buildings and she co-authored a bill calling for creating a comprehensive citywide list. Violators on Cheh's list include properties owned by the governments of Serbia, Sri Lanka, Cameroon and Argentina.

Many of these eyesores are in some of the district's most high-end neighbourhoods. The Sheridan-Kalorama area, where several are located, is home to former President Barack Obama, as well as President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and The Washington Post, recently bought a massive house there. The area's most recent prominent resident is Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson, whose department is responsible for making sure these diplomatic properties are maintained.

Tax

The issue is particularly frustrating for members of the city council, who find themselves unable to use the many instruments at their disposal for dealing with neglected buildings.

For example, the city has a three-tiered tax structure designed to compel landlords to maintain their properties. Ordinary buildings are taxed at 85 cents per $100 in assessed value; for a vacant property, that rate increases to $5 per $100 and if a property is judged by the city to be neglected or "blighted" the tax rate jumps to $10 per $100 in assessed value.

But that isn't applicable for a diplomatic building.

"If I have a vacant house in the Shaw neighbourhood that's becoming a problem, I can call in the cops, clean it up, throw a fence around it and if necessary seize it for unpaid taxes," said City Councillor Jack Evans. "I have a lot of tools in my tool box. But I don't have those tools available to me if it's a diplomatic property."

The State Department doesn't have a lot of options either.

Shame factor

Cliff Seagroves, acting head of the Office of Foreign Missions, said he's largely bound by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Revoking a property's diplomatic status is an extreme step that could provoke a diplomatic crisis and retaliatory action against US properties abroad.

"We have to balance [local residents' concerns] with making sure we're not making things harder for ourselves overseas," Seagroves said.

With limited options, Seagroves admitted that his office is often pleased to see negative press coverage of the issue that he hopes will embarrass intransigent nations into action.

"The shame factor is often our most effective tool in getting these matters resolved," he said.

The case of the former Pakistani consulate on R Street stands as a rare recent success. But it's also an example of how bad a situation has to get before the State Department will act. Seagroves said the Pakistani Foreign Ministry built a new embassy, moved its consular staff there and "in effect, walked away" from the old building.

After years of nagging, and with the building becoming a magnet for squatters, Seagroves' office finally delivered an ultimatum and a deadline.

When that passed, State revoked the diplomatic status in February 2016 and let the city move in and treat the property like any other blighted building.

By June 2017, the property had accumulated more than $70 000 in tax debt. That debt was purchased by an investment group at a tax auction in July 2017, giving the Pakistani government about six months to settle the debt or risk losing the property.

Renovation

The Pakistani government, in a statement to The Associated Press, said that "a plan is being worked out" for the building's renovation and it was working with the State Department and District of Columbia government "to amicably resolve the issue."

However, the Pakistani statement also pointed out that all diplomatic properties are exempt from taxation, a contention that seemingly ignores the revocation of the property's diplomatic status.

Repeated queries as to the why the building fell into such an extreme state of disrepair went unanswered.

While residents can claim victory there, the fight continues. One block away down R Street, the former Serbian embassy sits in similar disrepair with its diplomatic status intact.

Some of these unused buildings are unused for an understandable reason. The former Iranian Embassy has been empty since the two countries severed ties in 1979 and is now maintained by Seagroves' office. But in other cases, there seems to be multiple reasons why these nations would allow such valuable real estate to sit vacant and neglected.

David Bender, head of the local Advisory Neighbourhood Commission, said an ambassador once told him that he couldn't afford to fix up a property, but didn't want to sell it because he didn't want to be responsible for downsizing his country's presence in the US capital.

Seagroves said one foreign ministry official told him that "the cost to renovate a particular property in DC was equivalent to their entire annual budget for maintaining diplomatic properties around the world".

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