The large building at the corner of 22nd and R streets in downtown Washington, DC, sticks out like a wart in the otherwise upscale neighborhood. Plywood covers the windows and sleeping bags and empty bottles litter the shuttered doorways. For a solid decade, neighbors and local political leaders complained bitterly about the condition of the former Pakistani consulate. But the city remained powerless to do anything as long as the building was classified by the State Department as a diplomatic property. That diplomatic designation has since been revoked, according to the State Department, but the building still stands as what the AP calls perhaps the most egregious example of an only-in-DC phenomenon, where diplomatic protocol allows a string of abandoned buildings to fester, untouchable and tax-free.
Why do they languish? The head of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission said an ambassador once told him that he couldn't afford to fix up a property, but didn't want to sell it because he didn't want to be responsible for downsizing his country's presence in the US capital. One partial list of vacant and neglected diplomatic buildings includes properties owned by the governments of Serbia, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and Argentina. The State Department's acting head of the Office of Foreign Missions said he's largely bound by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Revoking a property's diplomatic status is an extreme step that could provoke a diplomatic crisis and retaliatory action against US properties abroad. What can help? Negative press coverage. "The shame factor is often our most effective tool in getting these matters resolved," he says.