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Chinese Embassy Plan to Replace Old Chancellery and Residence With New Building on Fast Track

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF]

Successfully navigating between the design shoals of a Scylla of showy signature architecture and a Charybdis of post-modern imitative style structures, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China filed an application in August, 2020 with the District’s Foreign Mission Board of Zoning Adjustment for the construction of a new chancellery and embassy residence building to replace the present chancellery and residence buildings at 2300 and 2310 Connecticut Avenue, NW.

Largely vacant since the Embassy’s public consular affairs offices were moved in 2009 to the new Chinese Embassy in the International Chancellery Center at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street and the residential staff were also relocated, the proposed replacement building would house a small, residual non-public consulate office and below-grade archives and storage spaces, along with expanded embassy staff residential apartments.

Given the zoning complexities of the combined building sites, and the impact of design choices — for example, foregoing bay projections on the front of the 2300 Connecticut Avenue replacement building in order to harmonize with the planned restoration of the façades of the 2310 apartment building — and the set-back requirements on the Kalorama Road side of the 2300 building, the size, massing, and visual prominence of the proposed new building is roughly comparable to that of the existing two buildings.

Of keen interest to residents of Kalorama Heights whose homes and apartment buildings are in the immediate vicinity of the site are the continuing issues of historic district design compatibility, office use in a residential neighborhood, parking, and traffic congestion. As appropriately noted in the Embassy’s application, filed by its attorneys at Holland and Knight led by Chris Collins, “the proposed building has been designed by the local architectural firm of Esocoff & Associates, a firm that is well known in the City for designing high-quality residential and mixed use buildings in prominent locations, with a high level of attention to detail and a long record of architectural excellence as evidenced by numerous design awards, critical acclaim and publication in professional journals.” Architectural plans and elevation drawings filed with the Chinese Embassy’s application reflect this tradition.

The District’s historic preservation interests in the proposed new building are two-fold: first, its compatibility with the historic district in which the existing two buildings sit, and, in this case, face across Connecticut Avenue; second, the appropriateness of demolishing the 2300 Connecticut Avenue structure and the interior of the 2310 apartment building. Although neither of these two buildings are historically landmarked, 2310 is deemed a “contributing structure” to the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District, and both buildings face the Kalorama Triangle Historic District.

2300 Connecticut Avenue is the 1940s-built former Windsor Park Hotel, a relatively nondescript structure which is unimpressive in quality when compared to its immediate neighbors; the adjoining 2310 Connecticut building, the 1920s St. Alban Apartments — the historically contributing structure where the Embassy application proposes retaining and restoring the handsome front façade with its arched entranceway and surrounding arched windows as well as the north façade and that part of the south façade visible from Kalorama Road.

On this matter, Holland and Knight’s application brief notes that “the decision to demolish [the interior structure of] 2310 Connecticut Avenue was made only after study of its capability to meet the necessary level of security for the proposed use as set forth by the U.S. Department of State. The study determined that the exterior walls of 2310 were of far greater structural strength relative to security requirements than is the concrete frame within the building. As a result, the exterior wall construction of 2310 Connecticut meets the security requirements of the Embassy while the interior structural frame does not provide sufficient lateral resistance to meet those requirements. Thus, it is possible to retain the exterior walls as long as a new, more robust interior structural system is provided for adequate lateral bracing.”

After describing the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board’s “New Construction in Historic Districts” preservation criteria for compatibility standards and noting the presence on the Embassy project team of noted historic preservation consultant Emily Eig of EHT Traceries, the Holland and Knight brief concludes: “the resulting design is compatible with and sensitive to its surroundings and will be a visual asset not only to Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District and the surrounding Historic Districts, but to the District of Columbia itself.”

With the absence of any public consular affairs activities and the migration of public protest groups to the Van Ness location, the impacts of public office use in this residential neighborhood should be dramatically alleviated; so too, nighttime traffic for public events which have also been moved to the International Chancellery Center site will not be an issue. Parking and congestion are specifically addressed in the Embassy application brief with the stipulation that the replacement chancellery and embassy residential building’s 160 residential units will be served by 153 parking spaces, “which complies with the requirements of the Zoning Regulations, and is sufficient in number to ensure that there will be no vehicular parking on neighborhood streets by the chancery personnel or building residents.” According to attorney Chris Collins, these 160 apartment units in the new building compare with the two buildings’ 229 units when constructed and 345 when consolidated into an inner connected pair of structures in the early 1970s when the Chinese acquired the buildings and converted them to chancellery and embassy residential uses. The present 86 parking spaces — 61 surface and 25 below grade — compare with the proposed 153 below grade spaces in the new project.

Meetings of historic preservation groups and advisory neighborhood commissions on this matter have been scheduled for mid-to-late September; the Historic Preservation Review Board may include the matter on its October monthly meeting agenda; and the Foreign Missions Board of Zoning Adjustment will conduct a public hearing on the project proposal on November 9, 2010.