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Trump bid to move 'hellhole' embassy sunk by architectural icon

Trump bid to move 'hellhole' embassy sunk by architectural icon

by Bloomberg 2 min. 01.04.2018 From our online archive
Brussels, European city Donald Trump labelled 'Hellhole,' picks a fight with US president in an area close to his heart: real-estate development
The US Embassy building in Brussels (sanderdewilde)
The US Embassy building in Brussels (sanderdewilde)

The Belgian capital has taken action to block Washington's plan to move the US embassy from its current downtown location near Russia's mission to a bucolic neighbourhood adjacent an 11,000-acre forest on the city's southern outskirts. The point of contention? The new building is too celebrated for what the Americans have planned for it.

The US government -- which still doesn't have an ambassador to either Belgium or the Brussels-based European Union -- purchased the site in 2016, with the intention of tearing down the existing building because it doesn’t meet its size requirements or modern environmental standards.

But last year, the regional city government applied to have the building placed on a "safeguard list", which would prevent any modification or destruction to the four-winged, copper- and glass-covered structure.

The building, which formerly housed the 'Royale Belge' insurance company and more recently a local AXA outpost, "is part of the flagship heritage of our region," said Lidia Gervasi, spokeswoman to the regional minister responsible for monuments and sites. "For many people living in Brussels, it's an icon of modern architecture of the 1960s".

London's 'bad deal'

And while the regional government has another year to make its formal decision, it intends to confirm the safeguard procedure and place the building on the monument list, Gervasi said.

Brussels is the world's second-largest seat of diplomatic representations, hosting more than 200 embassies as well as the European institutions and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The US Embassy building in Brussels (AFP)
The US Embassy building in Brussels (AFP)

The Belgian row adds to the controversies Washington is navigating at its international missions, with Trump earlier this year cancelling a visit to London to open a new embassy, saying the old site was sold for "peanuts" and the new building, in an "off location," was a "bad deal." Trump also complicated plans for Middle East peace talks last year when he said he'd move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, jeopardising America's role as a mediator in the region.

The Brussels-based real-estate investment trust Cofinimmo sold the site, made up of two buildings on Boulevard Souverain, to the US government on the condition Washington would get the proper licenses and permits from the Brussels authorities. The location represents 1.6% of Cofinimmo's property portfolio and was valued at €55 million.

'Insurmountable issues'

"Acquisition of this property is on hold due to a 'safeguarding' procedure initiated by the government of Brussels to protect the current building on the site," according to an emailed statement from the US State Department. "The building presents multiple insurmountable issues relating to building size and capacity, environmental inefficiencies, and structure and safety".

One of the issues with the location is that, at more than 50,000 square meters, "it was way too big for the US embassy" and also "presents a problem of security," said Thierry Wauters, director of the department of monuments and sites of the Brussels-Capital region. Discussions are ongoing to potentially find a solution not too far from the Souverain address, Wauters said.

But the US State Department and Cofinimmo are still reviewing their options.

"We're continuing discussions with the U.S. embassy in Brussels and with the Department of State in Washington because the US government is very interested to move its embassies in Brussels to the Souverain site," Cofinimmo Chief Executive Officer Jean-Edouard Carbonnelle said in a 9 February earnings call.