US embassy in London moving to hardcore gay district next to MI6 spy agency

US embassy in London to switch to former industrial site

Diplomats will swap London’s premier residential and shopping district for a former industrial site in an area renowned for its hard-core gay clubs.

The Times | Oct 3, 2008

The United States is to abandon its embassy in London’s diplomatic quarter for a high-security compound south of the Thames that will offer better protection against the terrorist threat.

After 200 years in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, the embassy will transfer to a site overlooking the river between Battersea power station and the headquarters of MI6 at Vauxhall.

Diplomats will swap London’s premier residential and shopping district for a former industrial site in an area renowned for its hard-core gay clubs.

The planned move comes after a worldwide review of the safety of US embassies as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the War on Terror. A number have moved to secure locations outside city centres.

The London embassy, the biggest in Western Europe, was considered a key target for terrorism because of Britain’s close link to the United States. It has almost 800 staff, about half of whom are American.

The move will end a diplomatic presence in Mayfair dating back to the founding of the United States. Grosvenor Square was home to John Adams, the first Ambassador to London and the second President of the United States, from 1785 to 1788. The present 600-room embassy building was completed in 1960. There are still more than 930 years on a 999-year lease from the Duke of Westminster. The annual rent of one peppercorn is believed to have been paid in full several years ago with the presentation of three golden peppercorns.

For many people, the building will always be associated with the student protests against the Vietnam War and, more recently, the tributes after the terrorism attacks in 2001.

At least the move would bring an end to the dispute over the £8-a-day congestion charge, which Robert Tuttle, the US Ambassador, has refused to pay on the ground that diplomats are exempt from paying any taxes in Britain. It is claimed that the embassy owes more than £2 million, prompting the former Mayor, Ken Livingstone, to describe Mr Tuttle as a “chiselling little crook”. The new embassy site will be outside the congestion charge zone.

After the September 11 attacks, the present embassy was surrounded by concrete blast barriers and 6ft-high fences, and the road outside was closed to traffic. However, it was still considered vulnerable to vehicle-borne explosives or suicide attacks. Additional security measures requested by the embassy were opposed by neighbours, with more than a hundred residents taking out a newspaper advertisement complaining that its presence left the surrounding area vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The embassy is reported also to have considered developing the former Chelsea Barracks or a site in Osterley, near Heathrow. It was even rumoured to have asked to move into Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Mr Tuttle admitted yesterday that security concerns were a key factor in the planned move, but said he also hoped that the new embassy would help to revitalise the south bank of the Thames. “We looked at all our options, including renovation of our current building,” he said. “In the end, we realised that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility.”

The ambassador said that the embassy would remain in Grosvenor Square if the move was not approved by Congress or local planners. The sale of the present building and proceeds from the recent disposal of the navy annexe would cover the cost of the new embassy, he said.

Mr Tuttle has already signed a deal with the Ballymore Group to buy the freehold of the new embassy site in the Nine Elms Opportunity Area. An international design competition will be held for the building.

Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, said: “We will be sorry to see the US Embassy leave as the current security arrangements we negotiated are working well, but we understand their desire to be in a more secure compound. Their departure will provide an opportunity for this famous site to be used by some other major organisation.”

The embassy will be put up for sale “almost immediately”, although buyers will be told that the building will not be vacated for at least five years.

Estate agents are reported to have placed a value of £500 million on the building, with developers expressing interest in using the site for a luxury hotel or flats. English Heritage has been in discussions with the embassy, however, over the possibility of giving the building a Grade II listed status, which would restrict the development possibilities severely.

Related

U.S. Moves Embassy in London Near Britain’s MI6 Spy Agency

Bloomberg | Oct 2, 2008

By Caroline Alexander

Oct. 2 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. government said it will move its embassy in Britain to the south London neighborhood of Vauxhall, near the nation’s MI6 spy agency.

The decision will close its present facility and end its 220 year residence at the western edge of Grosvenor Square near the shopping district on Oxford Street and in the heart of Mayfair, one of the city’s priciest residential areas.

“This has been a long and careful process,” said Ambassador Robert Tuttle, who has led the search for a new site since July 2005 when he arrived in London. “We looked at all our options.”

Shortly before meeting with reporters today, Tuttle said he signed on behalf of the U.S. government a conditional agreement with the real estate developer Ballymore Properties Ltd. to acquire five acres of land in the Nine Elms Opportunity area in Wandsworth, near Vauxhall Bridge and MI6.

Congress in the U.S. and local planning authorities must approve the decision. Tulett declined to say how much the deal is worth. The embassy will remain at Grosvenor Square for at least five years until the new building is completed.

Nine Elms is a district that runs west of Vauxhall Bridge on the south side of the River Thames to Battersea. It is home to the New Covent Garden, the U.K.’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

Regeneration Plan

The area is earmarked for regeneration after more than two decades of blight. Its main landmark is the derelict Battersea Power Station, the subject of a 4 billion-pound redevelopment plan by its Irish owners, Richard Barrett and John Ronan.

The first U.S. ambassador to Britain was John Adams, who lived on Grosvenor Square from 1785 to 1788. The U.S. also owned the nearby U.S. Naval building, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to invade Normandy in World War II.

The embassy has been in Grosvenor Square since 1938 and has been on its present site, covering the whole of the west side of the square, since 1960. It has 225,000 square feet on nine floors for about 800 staff and an aluminum bald eagle with a wingspan of over 11 meters situated on the roof.

Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen designed the current building. It was opened in 1960, and at first the British public was invited to drop by the library and enjoy jazz concerts.

Security was tightened in the 1980s and 1990s following attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, including truck bombings at the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 that left 224 dead. After 2001, concrete barriers were erected at the site, roads were closed, and checkpoints set up and staffed by security officers armed with sub-machine guns.

Neighborhood Relations

The ambassador acknowledged that the security at the current site has strained relations with neighbors, though a $15 million upgrade in November 2007 helped soften the visual impact of the barriers. He denied that security concerns were the only reason for moving the embassy.

“We realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally friendly building could best be met by constructing a new facility,” Tuttle said.

Profits from the sale of the Naval building last year and the future sale of the Grosvenor Square building would cover the costs of constructing a new site, Tuttle said. The embassy won’t be asking Congress for money, he added.

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