By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008
The front door to one of Washington's finer addresses, a four-story townhouse valued at $3.9 million, is padlocked and covered with plywood. The brass-toned plate above the entrance reads: "Embassy of the Republic of Malawi."
Next door, a barren nine-bedroom residence is assessed at $6 million, even with the bare flagpole out front, the weeds growing in the driveway, the paint-peeled columns and boarded-up windows. The owner: the United Arab Emirates.
Across the street, along a portion of Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row, the grass outside a century-old mansion recently reached hip high, Venetian blinds twist sloppily in a corner window and the front door is missing its doorknob.
The owner, the Pakistani government, moved out in 2004.
Over the past year, the District has fought to eliminate thousands of vacant buildings, sharply raising property taxes to force owners to sell, lease or occupy their real estate. But officials can exert no such pressure on more than a dozen derelict properties that have added a dose of blight to some of Washington's grandest neighborhoods.
Each of the buildings served as an embassy or diplomatic residence for countries including Liberia and Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Togo. Legally considered foreign soil in almost all cases, the buildings are exempt from property taxes and the fine print of the city's building code.
In some cases, the properties are vacant because the countries have decamped to more palatial confines in the diplomatic enclave off Van Ness Street. In others, the disrepair is a sign of trouble back home as the countries struggle to finance renovations.
Then there's the empty brick house on Quincy Street NW, the one with the dead leaves piled at the front door, the ungainly forest consuming the back yard and the collapsed remnants of what was once a garage roof.
Neighborhood children refer to it as the "haunted house."
Property records show the owner as the Embassy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1991.
In 2006, the republic's diplomatic properties were divided among the six succeeding countries. Although the house was turned over to Bosnia, at least preliminarily, the deed was never transferred, said Svetozar Miletic, minister counselor at the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"I don't have the key," Miletic said, "and trust me, I don't know who has the key."
Last month, the D.C. Preservation League issued its annual list of endangered properties. The Democratic Republic of the Congo's ramshackle former embassy earned a spot. With its peeling paint, rotting windows and ever-weakening roof, the mansion is "a classic example of demolition by neglect," the league wrote. Neighbors have complained about squatters.
Rob Halligan, a Dupont Circle activist, has written letters and attended meetings about the property, all of which, he said, has yielded one obvious improvement: a board over a second-floor window. "This building is just going to crumble," he said.
Pakistan's old embassy on Massachusetts Avenue has been vacant for four years, along with its former diplomatic offices on R Street NW, where the intercom dangles by a wire in the marbled vestibule and crumpled newspapers are piled up, one dated Aug. 26, 2006. On a recent day, a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream stood in the corner.
"Isn't that unbelievable?" asked John Sukenik of Kalorama, gazing at heaps of torn shrubbery in the courtyard. "It's unsightly and disrespectful to the neighborhood."
The former Yugoslavia is listed as the owner of a deserted mansion two doors away. Just off the far corner, next to Bulgaria's embassy and across from Brazil's, Argentina owns a townhouse that a neighbor said has been unoccupied for years.
Raymond Saba, who owns an inn across from the Yugoslavian property, said he takes it upon himself to trim the hedges and water the flowers, if only to brighten the view from his entrance. "You'd like the street to be lit at night," he said. "You'd like to come out in the morning and say hello. But it's dark. You look at the buildings, and they're falling down."
The owners have their reasons.
The Philippines government built a new embassy off 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW and is pondering the future of the headquarters it vacated more than a decade ago, a four-story building across the street. The country's weathered crest still hangs over the boarded-up entrance, and the only sign of life on a recent morning was an empty plastic foam container and an open packet of mustard on the front step.
The pondering is proving costly. In 2006, the State Department withdrew the former embassy's diplomatic status, according to District officials, and the city sent the Filipinos a tax bill. The city has required that the Filipinos pay a higher rate charged to vacant properties, although foreign countries can gain an exemption if they seek one. As of the past week, the Philippine government owes the District $138,961, records show.
Pakistan has no such financial worries as it decides what to do with its former diplomatic headquarters on Embassy Row, which has been empty since it moved to a new complex off Van Ness Street NW. Although an embassy official said workers maintain the property -- once featured in a magazine published by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts -- a recent visit found uncut grass, damaged steps and open windows, apparently exposing the interior to rain.
Nadeem Haider Kiani, an embassy spokesman, said the government might sell the building or turn it into a cultural center.
Other countries plan to reclaim their properties. That includes Malawi, which left an Embassy Row townhouse after a 2003 fire. Congo vacated its New Hampshire Avenue embassy in 2004 because of disrepair. Renovations were planned, but a war that claimed almost 4 million lives made the project less than a priority. Now the embassy says it is ready to hire a contractor. "This is not an intention, this is a fact," Ambassador Faida Mitifu said.
The Liberian government is raising at least $200,000 to refurbish a diplomatic residence that has graffiti -- MAGIC 2 and CHE NUK -- scrawled on its exterior. A previous renovation project stalled, but the Liberians hope to begin work by year's end on the Colorado Avenue house, which is down the street from their embassy, said Edwin Sele, the deputy chief of mission. Sele said he plans to move in when the work is done. "I can see it from my office window," he said.
A few blocks away, on leafy Crittenden Street NW, Togo's former ambassador lived in a three-story house until 2005, when he traveled to Africa on home leave. His planned return was aborted when the country's president died and Togo's new leader appointed the ambassador as chief of staff, said Joseph Sala, an embassy official.
With all of the changes, mundane details were lost. The ambassador never told the post office that he had moved, so his mail piled up. A burst pipe flooded the basement. The grass grew unruly. After neighbors complained, embassy staff went to tidy up. "You don't like to have thought that you let it go," Sala said. "It's a reflection on the country of Togo."
Although the number of vacant buildings owned by foreign countries is relatively few, they sometimes draw added attention because they're in affluent areas. Inevitably, District officials and community leaders complain to a higher authority on such matters: the State Department, which "works to resolve upkeep issues through diplomatic channels," spokesman Darby Holladay wrote in an e-mail.
The United States, he wrote, can withdraw a property's diplomatic status, a sanction he described as "rare." He declined to specify when it has been imposed.
Although District officials say that the State Department is responsive, contacting it does not always yield satisfying results, as Andrea Gibbs discovered after calling about the Liberians' house. Gibbs, who lives across the street from the property, said she was advised to contact Liberia directly.
Steve Gifford has found a bright side to living next to an eyesore -- in his case, Congo's former embassy. In exchange for Gifford and his partner spending $200 a month cutting the grass and cleaning up, Congo granted that most elusive of city perks: parking in the embassy's driveway. "Everybody wins," Gifford said.
If vacant embassies can be unsightly, renovations aren't always the salve. Niger is spending $500,000 on its residence, which has been vacant for the past year and in disrepair for longer. The construction debris on the front lawn is only part of what annoys the neighbors. There's also the tarp-covered pool that breeds mosquitoes that swarm the adjoining back yard, said Alice Sessions, who lives next door with her husband, Bill, the former FBI director.
But what especially offends her is the new A-frame roof over the entrance and a set of two-story-tall concrete columns. In an interview, she struggled to refrain from passing aesthetic judgment. "You just live with it," she said, her exasperation melting into resignation.
Some governments eventually unload their properties.
Developer Jim Abdo bought Ghana's vacant diplomatic residence -- rain was "cascading" through the roof when he visited, he said -- and turned it into his home. He paid a consultant to fly to Nigeria to persuade the country's leaders to sell him their shell of a mansion in Massachusetts Heights.
Abdo paid $3.2 million for the estate, including a family of raccoons scampering about its four floors. After a massive renovation that included a new swimming pool, he is selling the mansion for $6.95 million.
The raccoons have moved out.