Housing Complex

With New Diplo-Campus at Walter Reed, Space Will Open Up on Embassy Row

Tentative boundaries from March, which may be out of date.

Over the last few weeks, the District and the Army have been hashing out a final agreement about who gets what on the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after sketching out new boundaries back in March. Over the next few months, D.C. will re-start meetings to decide what should go where on the land that it gets.

But the District isn't the only one moving forward with plans for the site. The State Department, which will be getting the northwest corner, is working on putting together a new center for between 10 and 20 chanceries, similar to the one on Van Ness Street NW just west of Connecticut Avenue. That secluded enclave was created in the 1960s, and leased to the American outposts of 22 nations including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan. The U.S. required each country's building to reflect its native architecture, which resulted in what the 2006 American Institute of Architects Guide to the Architecture of Washington called "dreadful pastiches of pseudo-vernacular forms."

Neighbors aren't just worried about ugly buildings. And they aren't even just worried about traffic. This time around, they fear the creation of another closed-off compound that won't benefit the surrounding community—a "bunker," as one citizen member of the Local Redevelopment Authority Committee put it last night. State is already talking about having a 50-foot setback between its buildings and the District's property, which made Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning raise her eyebrows.

Of course, the level of security will depend on the requirements of the countries that opt to locate there. In response to a question from D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew, the State Department rep said that most would be relocating from elsewhere in the District—many of them from Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, where some buildings just don't meet a modern chancery's needs. But most people don't require the kind of fortification that a foreign country's physical presence in America does these days, which means that at least a dozen or so of those buildings could become available over the next several years to interested parties, substantially weakening the area's statist character.

I'd take Estonia, myself.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    Interesting how the US rewards allies with new embassies. I bet they wish they could take back that Egypt one.

    But on another note, I have a suggestion for the design of the Bahraini embassy: a recreation of the now-destroyed Pearl Monument! It fits the design criteria perfectly!

  • Thayer-D

    Don't let the AIA's commentary of "pseudo-vernacular" Embassys fool you. Look at their own building on New York Avenue. Another (to use thier logic) "pseudo-mosernist" building. By that measure, every older neighborhood is pseudo. One might not like these traditional styled buildings, but the logic behind this critique is completely hypocritical.

  • Alison

    I was lucky enough to do write research papers on several of the embassies at the International Center in pre-9/11 days. Back then the Van Ness campus was more open and welcoming. No one minded if you took pictures if you showed ID and explained what you were doing. The State Dept helped me with my research and the staff at the Jordanian embassy invited me inside. Now the uniformed protective services are so jumpy when anyone walks around, I feel like I'm doing something wrong just being there. Which is too bad because it's one of my favorite places in DC. The Venice biennale grounds have a similar world's fair appeal.

  • TM

    I've never been through that Van Ness embassy district, but just streetviewed it. It's like EPCOT!

    But seriously, what reason to they have to be confident the embassy row buildings would be sold? Wouldn't they just hold on to them as residences or whatever? It seems like countries would want to hold on to the prestige that comes with those addresses. And besides, who would/could buy them?

  • Bob See

    eh, the whole thing's already a closed off "bunker". Maybe the plan can get incessantly nitpicked so nothing happens for 20 years...

    It's sad, we think we're achieving the PERFECT-FOREVER solution with endless "studies", but change is just not going to stop no matter what's built.

    So the issue-du-jour is a 50 ft buffer. Maybe in the future that buffer can be converted to shared parkland or in-fill. Or *gasp*, no one ends up caring about it.