Friday, October 3, 2008

LONDON | The United States plans to sell its landmark embassy in London and build a more-secure facility outside city center, the U.S. ambassador said Thursday, a move that would end the American presence on a square once home to John Adams and Dwight Eisenhower.

Ambassador Robert Tuttle said the State Department has agreed to buy a 5-acre site on former industrial land south of the River Thames and that the existing embassy building will be put up for sale “almost immediately.”

The State Department has been weighing whether to renovate the embassy, a modern concrete-and-glass building designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, or whether to sell it and move to a new site in the suburbs.

The move will end more than 200 years of U.S. association with Grosvenor Square in London’s Mayfair district. Although the current building dates from the 1960s, the U.S. presence on the square goes back to the late 18th century, when future president Adams was the first U.S. envoy to the Court of St. James. Eisenhower had his headquarters on the square during World War II, when the area became known as “Little America.”

“This has been a long and careful process,” Mr. Tuttle told reporters. “We looked at all our options, including renovation of our current building on Grosvenor Square. In the end, we realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility.”

Officials in Washington said security was the main reason for the decision to move, although there were also problems with the aging embassy’s design. Renovating the embassy would have cost more that $600 million and taken at least seven years and even then would not have met security standards without obstructing traffic in the square, they said.

“We have had long relations in Grosvenor Square with the British government and people, but for the security of the embassy and the security of the public, we concluded that the best thing would be to build a new embassy in order to continue that relationship,” said Jonathan Blyth of the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

The purchase price of the new property is confidential, but State Department officials in Washington said it would be entirely self-financed by revenue from the sale of the current embassy, a nearby Marine guard housing unit and the sale last year of the Navy Annex.

The annex was sold for $494 million, more than twice what the State Department had expected.

The United States does not own the existing embassy outright but rather has a 999-year lease on the property that will not expire until the year 2959.

The U.S. presence in Grosvenor Square has not always been appreciated by the embassy’s neighbors. Some have complained that the 600-room building is an eyesore on the leafy square, especially since the introduction of concrete blast barriers and other security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Last year a residents’ organization calling itself the Grosvenor Square Safety Group took out a two-page advertisement in the Times of London and The Washington Post complaining the building put them at risk of terrorist attack.

The move requires approval from Congress and local planning authorities, and Mr. Tuttle said relocation was probably five years away.

The United States has been selling embassies and other diplomatic buildings around the world as it consolidates diplomatic staff in more secure and modern compounds, often away from city centers.

A push to upgrade security began after the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. The security effort took on new urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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