Cleveland Park residents may have noticed the new home development breaking ground on Porter Street, where construction is underway on Porter Street Residences, a 27-unit apartment building (pictured), to be completed in 2010, the only new residential project in the vicinity. Less observant residents might have missed, however, the uniformly Chinese work crew. The outsourcing is not a cost-cutting measure, however. Beginning in 2010, 2708 Porter Street NW will be home to the diplomatic staff residences of the Education Office of the People's Republic of China, a companion project to the recently completed $250 million, 345,500 square foot Chinese Embassy. The nature of the construction is only the first in a series of eyebrow-raising questions posed by goings-on at the site.
Designs for the 27-unit apartment building (12 two-bedroom units, 10 one-bedroom units and 5 studios) and 30-car underground parking garage were prepared by New York’s Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn, the firm that is currently designing the Southwest Waterfront, with construction overseen by China Construction America Inc., the American face of the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), the largest “conglomerate building enterprise” in the People’s Republic of China. Hence the dozens of Chinese workers in the Washington area to staff the project. Why bring workers so far for a paltry 27 units? One word: security. International politics being what they are, the seldom-neighborly Chinese government surmised that "American" workers (ahem) might pose a security risk, planting recording devices (or worse) for the benefit of those in the CIA, NSA or likewise acronymic agency. (Lest we forget the secret listening post constructed under the Soviet Embassy in 1970s that remained undiscovered until 2001, or the brand new Moscow embassy Uncle Sam abandoned in the 1980's after finding it infested with (electronic) bugs.)
This appears to be standard operating procedure for China Construction. The company has previously transported emigrant work crews to America for other projects throughout New York, California and Florida. The process also echoes their practices for construction of the Embassy itself, another instance in which they have sought to bar other non-Han crews’ from having any involvement on a work site – a move which prompted severe criticism from stateside union organizations such as Unite Here! and the AFL-CIO.
While the apartments themselves have drawn little flak from the surrounding community, the conditions afforded the Chinese construction crew have been the subject of scrutiny. Reports of the workers' long hours and confinement within a defunct, barbed-wire enclosed Days Inn on New York Avenue NE have been circulating since 2005, when the Embassy first began construction. According to one Chinese speaker who posted a report of an encounter with a Porter Street worker at Prince of Petworth, the workers are fearful of being seen talking to local residents and won’t be permitted to tour the city until their work is completed.
A press release issued by Holland & Knight, the law firm responsible for securing the building’s requisite zoning and land use permits, describes the Porter Street Residences as a “spacious living environment for the diplomats and staff and their families, as well the visiting delegations, scholars and officials.” Seeing as the record of the People's Republic is far from spotless on human and labor rights, it’s no surprise that the imported workers aren’t being afforded the same style of "living environment" as the one they are building. What is surprising, however, is the lack of mainstream media scrutiny regarding the subject. To date, no local television, newspaper or radio outlets have filed a single report on the development. Given the constant stream of activists calling for action outside of the Chinese Embassy, perhaps Porter Street will soon be seeing a few protests to call its own.