US Embassy in London to Move Down-Market

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Alastair Grant / AP

United States Embassy in London, England.

The U.S. Embassy has been located at Grosvenor Square through generations of pomp and changing circumstance. In 1968 it was a focal point of anti-Vietnam War protests; after the September 11 attacks, it drew ire from local residents worried it could draw terrorist bombs. Through it all, the Mayfair edifice was the site of lively parties for London's chattering classes and influential leaders passing through. All that is due to change, though, with the announcement that the U.S. Embassy plans to relocate across the Thames to a place whose very name reflects a rougher and more industrial tone: the Nine Elms Opportunity Zone.

"This has been a long and careful process," U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle said in a statement yesterday. "We looked at all of our options, including renovation of our current building in 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."

The current building, a nine-story concrete block crowned with an oversized gilded eagle, struggles to contain the embassy's 800-person staff. It has never been thoroughly renovated since it was built in the 1950s facing a busy square, a situation that has made the facility difficult to protect. For all that, American diplomats will likely turn up their noses at the announcement. The move means trading in the tony surroundings of Mayfair — with its bespoke tailors, high-end jewelers and Michelin-starred restaurants — for a gritty stretch of road between Battersea and Vauxhall, known for, among other things, its bus station, a large supermarket and one of London's busiest gay saunas. The new location will, however, place the embassy closer to the British parliament at Westminster, and is within walking distance from the headquarters of MI6, Britain's secret intelligence service.

As part of the relocation, which could take up to five years, the Embassy will sponsor an international design competition calling for energy-efficient building techniques and designs that "celebrate the values of freedom and democracy." All plans remain conditional until the United States Congress and local planning authorities approve the move. Unlike most of its embassies around the world, the United States does not own outright the land surrounding its British facility; it is currently leased (like much of the rest of the borough) from the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain's richest men.

The move marks the end of a storied relationship. Over two centuries, five presidents, four vice presidents and ten secretaries of state have served at Grosvenor Square. In the late 18th century, John Adams, America's first Ambassador to the Court of St. James, opened a diplomatic post there, and in 1938 the Square became home to America's main diplomatic mission to Britain. During WWII, the Square earned the nickname "Little America" when Dwight D. Eisenhower placed his military headquarters on its leafy grounds.

The Embassy's relations with its neighbors began to sour after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although the State Department started a program of heavily fortifying its embassies against terrorism, some residents saw the Grosvenor Square site as vulnerable. In 2006, a neighborhood association, the Grosvenor Square Safety Group, bought two-page advertisements in The Washington Post and the Times of London that accused the Metropolitan Police and local governments of a moral failure for not closing the two roads adjacent to the embassy. Russian Countess Anca Vidaeff, who lived across from the embassy's side entrance, even held a three-day hunger strike to protest what she claimed was inadequate security. "My property is my pension but I cannot rent or sell my house and my life is in danger," she told the press.

The result was a $15 million security upgrade that included raised concrete flower beds, six-foot-high blast walls, guard shacks and traffic-blocking structures. Enhanced screening facilities were also introduced to catch suicide bombers. Yet all those physical measures — which must be removed as part of the move — have not entirely resolved the embassy's security challenges.

"We will be sorry to see the U.S. embassy leave as the current security arrangements we negotiated are working well," said Robert Davis, deputy leader of the Westminster City Council. "But we understand their desire to be in a more secure compound."

Experience elsewhere suggests that constructing the new embassy will be a massive undertaking. It took 25 years to complete the current U.S. embassy in Moscow; a first effort was scrapped after it was discovered in 1985 that the Soviets had planted bugs throughout the facility. With that in mind, a U.S. Embassy building in Beijing, which opened in August, was reportedly built entirely by American workers using American supplies. It's unclear such measures will have to be resorted to in London, where the U.S. still prides itself on maintaining a Special Relationship. But it will take many years before Nine Elms resounds with quite the prestige of Grosvenor Square; indeed, maybe it never will.

(Click here for photos of the new Francis Bacon exhibit in London.)