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Iconic Brussels building may sink US embassy plan

Building at new site in Brussels is too celebrated for what the Americans have planned for it

Brussels

BRUSSELS, the European city that US President Donald Trump has previously labelled a "hellhole", is picking a fight with the American leader in an area close to his heart: real-estate development.

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.

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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 SA 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," she added.

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, Ms Gervasi revealed.

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

The Belgian row adds to the controversies Washington is navigating at its international missions, with Mr 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".

Mr Trump also complicated plans for Middle East peace talks last year when he said he would 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 SA 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 per cent of Cofinimmo's property portfolio and was valued at 55 million euros (S$88.8 million).

"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 metres, "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, Mr Wauters noted.

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