THIRTY YEARS AGO, foreign governments had no problem finding sites for embassies and chanceries in Washington; only a few dozen countries were officially recognized by the United States, and their needs for official residences (embassies) and offices (chanceries) could easily be met. But since World War II, the size of the diplomatic community has grown dramatically -- so much so that foreign governments now find themselves in competition with District residents, local businesses and the federal and local governments for living and working space in the city.
Embassies and chanceries inevitably attract traffic, preempt parking spaces and otherwise throw the normal pace of residential areas into disarray.When faced with the possiblity of such disruption, almost every community raises strong objection. And that opposition, often perceived by the State Department and international representatives as American inhospitality, in turn raises the possibility of reciprocity -- or, more precisely, retaliation -- at the expense of American diplomats living abroad.
City officials, understandably anxious to avoid international incidents, have almost routinely allowed the diplomatic community to locate embassies and chanceries in residential areas -- regardless of neighborhood sentiment. But just the other day, the District's Board of Zoning Appeals set a precedent by denying a request from Bangladesh to convert a private home into a chancery. The board's decision was made only after months of review, public hearings and negotiations with State Department officials. The ruling marks the first time zoning officials have favored the interests of local residents over those of the international community. It by no means foreshadows a rejection of every request to locate diplomatic offices in residential areas. Board members have made it clear that they will judge future requests on a case-by -case basis.
But the ruling does signify that zoning officials believe -- however cautiously -- tht many of these facilities might be better suited to other parts of town. And they arequite right; there are appropriate sites for chanceries in the District other than in residential areas -- Pennsylvania Avenue, for example. The Canadian government is planning to build new offices there. An area of upper Connecticut Avenue has already been zoned and set aside for chanceries. If local zoning officials can direct chanceries to such areas, they will begin to balance the interest of all of the city's residents -- which is precisely what they are supposed to do.