Five apartment buildings that have long stood vacant and boarded up just off Connecticut Avenue are being renovated for use by the People's Republic of China and an independent Chinese education group.
The five adjoining buildings at 2700-2716 Porter Street NW, which have a total of 32 units, were built as garden apartments in 1942.
In 1984, the student group -- the United Association of Scholars and Students from the People's Republic of China, a nongovernmental group based in Washington -- purchased two of the five buildings for $500,000. A limited partnership, Better Fortunes Associates, bought the other three for $550,000.
In 1985, the partnership sold its buildings for $567,000 to the State Department, which then sold them to the Chinese. However, the United States retained ownership of the land under the buildings.
"We own the land, they own the buildings," said Ron Mlotek of the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions. The United States has signed a 99-year lease with China for the land under the three buildings.
Since Congress passed the Foreign Missions Act in 1982, countries that do not permit the United States to buy property within their borders have not been allowed to buy property here. The law was designed to assure reciprocity in diplomatic procedures. In 1984, China allowed the United States to own structures in China, but not the underlying land. The United States then agreed to a similar arrangement here.
"We control construction, because of the practice in China," said Bob Knapp, who oversees contract and construction awards for the Foreign Missions office. "Renovation in being done by contract to local vendors, reflecting the process in Beijing."
"It's a top-notch job, and we won't embarrass our country," said Paul Schroth, project manager of the renovation for J. Shaw Construction Co. In 1974, when the People's Republic renovated the Windsor Park Hotel at 2300 Connecticut Ave. NW for its embassy, much of the work was done by Chinese delegation members.
A spokesman for the student association said its renovated buildings will have 12 or 13 units for students visiting Washington.
The three buildings owned by the embassy will house employes of the education section of the embassy. "They are just living quarters," said an embassy official who asked not to be identified. "We hope we'll be very good neighbors."
The buildings are near the embassy and a short distance from two structures, at 3500 and 3514 Williamsburg La. NW, that were acquired by the Chinese in 1984 to house the cultural section. They also are near a grocery, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a movie theater, a library, dry cleaners, the National Zoo and the Yenching Palace -- a Chinese restaurant that played an important role in the re-establishment of diplomatic ties in 1973.
When the first Chinese diplomats arrived, they were unaccustomed to American food. The State Department, determined that the fledgling relationship not fail because of incompatible palates, arranged for the Yenching Palace to cater meals for the embassy staff of 60 for the six months that they stayed at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown.
The United States and China had no diplomatic relations for more than 20 years following the communist revolution on the mainland, which ended in 1949. But after president Richard M. Nixon toured China in 1972, Sino-American relations warmed.
The Chinese Liaison Mission opened in April 1973 in several rooms in the Mayflower. In November of that year, the Chinese government purchased the 400-room Windsor Park Hotel as a chancery and residence.
When relations were normalized in 1979, the building became the official embassy of the People's Republic of China.