Tuesday, September 09, 2008

China Brings Its Baggage to Porter Street

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.


Anonymous said...

Hunter- Love your stories. Fascinating and very well-written!

Anonymous said...

The location of the Chinese project piques my curiosity. From the rendering, it appears to be situated where a small apartment complex is (or was) located. Is this correct? Was a building demolished to make way for this project?

erin*carly on Sep 10, 2008, 9:38:00 AM said...

i've been wondering about the truth in rumors about the Days Inn housing Chinese nationals . . . looks like what i heard is right! i bet the conditions there are deplorable, too. i hope these people weren't lured into volunteering by promises of 'seeing america.'

Anonymous said...

Where did you get your information? It's a cool story, but where did you get your information about the workers? Citing another blog's account from a "Chinese speaker" isn't really sufficient.

You say the Chinese government "surmised" - did someone tell you that? Is there a document from the law firm that says that? Or did you assume that? Tell us what the critics say, don't just say they are critical.

This is a really cool story, but how much is fact and how much is assumption? Give us quotes! As of now, it could just be well written rumors.

Nope on Sep 10, 2008, 10:20:00 AM said...

The unions mentioned in the piece, Unite Here and the AFL-CIO went public with their complaints against the Chinese for shutting them out of the deal. Bloomberg news had previously reported on the worker situation with regards to the embassy, but had not followed up on the workers conditions or the Porter project. I personally located the motel and confirmed that there were actually Chinese construction crews still living there.
Of course, attempts to obtain site specifications/quotes from EEK went nowhere. And China Construction gave me a non-existent phone number for the construction foreman when I contacted them. None of the parties involved are exactly anxious to see any press on the subject - and even less so with regards to the blogosphere.
The only real assumption in the story is the reference to the other blog post - and it certainly warrants mention, seeing as there aren't too many Chinese speakers floating around the DCMud office these days. Unless, of course, they were just another plant from the vast left wing web posting conspiracy...gasp!
Thank you for your interest everyone!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow up. Just remember, it IS the blogosphere - tell us who doesn't want to talk! Tell us who won't call back. The great thing about blogging is that you can be a little more open about who is and is not talking! That is what makes a story like this even jucier!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting story. However, lets get off our high horse though. I've seen public housing developments that look worse than the Days Inn on NY ave. There are Americans living in worse conditions in the US. Now thats the real story here. Anyway, that part of the story just seems unnecessary to me.

Anonymous said...

In response to another comment...there used to be two sets of garden style apartments on that side of Porter Street near Rock Creek Park, across from 2501 Porter and The Quebec House. The one was demolished to build this housing, but I believe the property was already owned by China since only diplomats lived there previously.

Anonymous said...

Can you find out how long this construction will last? I live behind the construction site on Ordway St, and the 7am jackhammering is annoying as hell.

Love your site and your stories!

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