Both the State Department and D.C. citizens groups this week sharply attacked a plan that would allow foreign chanceries to locate in nearly 200 additional places throughout the District, but voiced their criticisms for vastly different reasons.
Ronald Mlotek, chief counsel for the State Department's foreign missions office, told the D.C. Zoning Commission that the plan would discriminate against foreign governments by prohibiting them from applying to open chanceries in areas not identified on the proposed map.
But several representatives of citizens groups said the plan would allow chanceries in predominantly residential neighborhoods.
The zoning commission hearing focused on a District planning department map that identifies specific areas of the city where chanceries may locate. The proposal is intended to comply with the Foreign Missions Act, which Congress passed in 1982, in part to give foreign governments more options in choosing locations for their mission offices in the District.
Most laws regarding location of chanceries already have been enacted into city zoning law, including provisions that permit them, as a matter of right, to be situated in a number of areas, including those zoned for commercial, industrial, waterfront or mixed uses.
The new plan identifies additional chancery zones, including 26 "institutional areas," such as on university and hospital properties, and more than 150 "other areas," which are specific city squares ranging in size from a portion of a city block to about four blocks. Most of the larger neighborhoods that could be affected are in Ward 3, the area of the city west of Rock Creek Park.
Mlotek said that while the State Department would not support a chancery moving into a residential neighborhood, the proposed map should not be approved as part of a zoning law, but serve as a guide to where chanceries could be built.
He said that the intent of Congress in the Foreign Missions Act was for the chancery location proposal to "be a planning map, not a zoning map."
The District's planning office has maintained that the map should be interpreted strictly, which would prescribe exact city blocks where chanceries could locate.
"We believe there should be some clarity to the whole zoning process," said Nate Gross, the planning department's zoning services chief. "All of the city was not intended to be subject to chancery use."
Mlotek also warned that the issue could be sent to Congress to decide, although he emphasized that the State Department wants to avoid involving Congress in the dispute.
He added that because of the political climate today in Congress, expecially over concerns of terrorism abroad, foreign governments could be given more latitude in choosing their chancery locations.
"If the foreign mission debate were opened today in Congress . . . the District may end up with less control over locations of chanceries than they have today," Mlotek warned.
But citizens groups said that the proposal would damage residential neighborhoods.
William Cochran, chairman of Georgetown's ANC-2B, said in an interview that his organization strongly opposes the proposed map because he said the formula used to determine possible chancery locations is flawed.
The planning office formula identified certain city squares for chancery locations that would allow foreign governments to locate in areas that had more than one-third non-residential, institutional or office uses.
As a result of that formula, however, chanceries "would be allowed to locate in the middle of a solidly residential block," Cochran said. He explained that some residential streets located in Georgetown would be subject to chancery development because the city square they are located in includes the storefronts along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW.
Cochran's organization, like most of the 16 neighborhood groups scheduled to testify during the two days of hearings that are expected to end Thursday, said it is in favor of defining where chanceries may and may not locate, but that those areas should not include residential neighborhoods.
Other civic representatives said that allowing chanceries to locate in neighborhoods could clear the way for other offices to move in and destroy residential blocks.
Dana Perrone, a board member of the Woodley Park Community Association, said that if the proposed map is approved by the zoning commission, "I see chanceries moving into neighborhoods and expanding office uses in numerous District residential neighborhoods."
Perrone added that the location of chanceries in residential neighborhoods increases traffic congestion and cuts into on-street parking for residents.
"There is also no control over what they do on their properties" because of diplomatic immunity laws, she said.