hey, Ruritania, is that your consulate or are you just happy to see me?
May 29, 2007 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Why do some countries have such large consulates in New York?

In the near-UN neighborhood where I work, Libya, Nigeria, and Germany all have medium to large size office buildings (approx 30 floors) as consulates. China has a veritable compound on the West side. Other countries of comparable size and economic connectivity to the US (e.g. Great Britain, Canada, Israel, France, and India) have consulates ranging from a few floors in an office building to an ornate townhouse. I have always wondered what countries that have large office buildings as a consulate *do* with that space.

Even factoring in that New York consulates do double duty as New York consulates and UN consulates, are there really that many official diplomatic or trade representatives or who knows what else representatives to justify a whole office building?

Note that these aren't buildings that fly the flag of a country that happens to be a renter. I would know that. The building where I work has at least four separate consulates as tenants. These are buildings that are themselves consulates, judging by the guards, security, and "Consulate of..." on the front part of the building above the entrance.

Libya had this 20 story office building long before the US and Libya had diplomatic relations. There couldn't have been much, or any, trade delegations in that one. Most of it even now looks vacant. Even in an oil-rich country like Nigeria, wouldn't most of the actual business take place in Lagos, Abuja (or Houston) or in the offices of the companies actually refining the oil? I would think a diplomatic mission would be fifty to one hundred people tops. Why would then need a thirty-story office building.

Do they rent out the rest of the space? I can imagine the conversations, "Yeah my dentist he's great, you know Dr. Moskowitz, in the Libyan consulate."

My guess is China's does double duty as dormitory for the entire staff, but still how much staff is necessary at a consulate or an embassy in this day and age? (Save for the US in "independent" Iraq)

My guess for Libya and Nigeria is that there is a lot of padding and under-secretary to the under-secretary type jobs for cronies and supporters.

I can't for the life of me see what Germany would need with a whole office building though.

Any ideas?
posted by xetere to Law & Government (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Consulates handle a lot of things beyond official diplomatic/trade relations. They issue visas, they handle things for their nationals (passports, registration of birth abroad, etc.), coordinate cultural and educational programs in the home country and the host country, and so forth.
posted by katemonster at 11:21 AM on May 29, 2007

Their leaders have small penises.

I'm only half-joking.
posted by mkultra at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2007

Response by poster: Consulates handle a lot of things beyond official diplomatic/trade relations.They issue visas, they handle things for their nationals (passports, registration of birth abroad, etc.), coordinate cultural and educational programs in the home country and the host country, and so forth.

Even so, I can't see that justifying a large office building. Many (most) countries in NY manage with a couple of floors rented or a nice ornate townhouse on the upper east side - even countries with a whole lot of their nationals and cultural ties in New York and vice versa (think Mexico, Israel, Ireland, etc., etc.)
posted by xetere at 11:27 AM on May 29, 2007

871 United Nations Plaza is home to probably the busiest German consulate on earth (those tourists aren't visiting DC nor generating a lot of embassy business in DC).

And the UN delegation of a sometime-security council member, that of a country which actually takes the UN seriously.

And (doing a quick search on Google) representatives of the federal education department running student exchange promotion. And an outboard office of the University of Leipzig.

Probably, in fact, almost every part of the German federal government with any business in the US has an office there.
posted by genghis at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2007

Oh, and for the record, the UK's consulate in NYC and its mission to the UN are in two entirely separate locations.
posted by genghis at 11:38 AM on May 29, 2007

I think a lot of it probably has to do with the number of expats from those countries living in or around NYC.
posted by OmieWise at 11:40 AM on May 29, 2007

Many spies work officially under diplomatic cover.
posted by dcjd at 11:41 AM on May 29, 2007

Best answer: I suspect that the countries that have small consulates, but still have major relationships with the U.S. (the U.K.) actually have more stuff going on in the city, but just don't put it all in one building. Instead they have multiple offices all over the place, such that any single office doesn't look that big. The single townhouse is probably just for the very "official" stuff, and then they're doing all their economic and U.N. business separately.

There's probably some sort of break-even point where it's cheaper (or otherwise advantageous) to have one massive building, versus lots of smaller ones (presumably closer to whatever they're supposed to do). Probably also depends on what property you already have, or whether you prefer buying property outright or leasing/renting it (and whether you're compensating for something). This sort of optimization isn't uncommon in industry.

Only other thing I can think of, is that non-English-speaking countries might have bigger consulate staffs, on average, than English-speaking ones, because of all the translators they need. But I don't think that's all the difference you're seeing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2007

I don't have any actual facts to base this on, but I wonder if some consulates have apartments--either swanky suites for the top officials, or warrens of smaller rooms for the less important folks.

I would think that some countries that are still somewhat hostile to the U.S., like China, would house their people on site. I'm pretty sure China used to house people at the embassy in DC., and may still do so.
posted by owenville at 12:07 PM on May 29, 2007

The cynic in me wants to think that some of the smaller or less developed countries with strikingly large consulates use appointment to US diplomat as a perk/political favor to party loyals, family members, military heads, etc. What's nicer than getting to live in the US on someone else's dime in potentially rather swank quarters, and being completely immune to US laws? It's good work if you can get it is all I'm saying, and it's not like the US is ever going to diplomatically be able to say, "Hey, your country doesn't really do shit for us, why do you need this huge embassy?"
posted by Rhomboid at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2007

Germany has 11 pages worth (pdf) of diplomatic staff accredited to the UN.
posted by TrashyRambo at 2:15 PM on May 29, 2007

Kadin2048 writes "There's probably some sort of break-even point where it's cheaper (or otherwise advantageous) to have one massive building, versus lots of smaller ones (presumably closer to whatever they're supposed to do)."

There is a security aspect to having multiple buildings. I worked for the Ministry of Mumble in Victoria, BC. We had a big multi story building with our name on it. Big public lobby, visible security, parking, the works. We also had several satellite buildings with nothing on the outside but the street number and some of those buzz through door controls common in apartment buildings. No way of knowing they are Ministry buildings so we didn't have to worry about protesters, bomb threats, etc. etc.
posted by Mitheral at 2:24 PM on May 29, 2007

When I interned at the US consulate in Munich, we had not only a sizeable building but also an apartment building compound down the street to house people -- and that was in a friendly country! I wouldn't be surprised if there were apartments in some of the buildings, particularly given the disparity between NYC rents and what a lot of these low-level staffers probably earn.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:09 PM on May 29, 2007

First, keep in mind that there are consulates general, consulates and vice-consulates. Most of the consular offices in NYC are consulates general, the largest consular designation. Here's a glimpse of what goes on in consulates, maybe it will help you have a better understanding of why they need all that space (but keep in mind that my experience is with the British Consulate, I have no idea what goes on in other consulates):

Vice-Consulates are there to serve citizens in distress, replace lost passports and deal with visa issues. They are small offices.

Consulates have more than one department, usually visa, protocol and trade. Sometimes press and public affairs. Sometimes they also have law enforcement working out of the consulate, this could be departments working with the FBI, drug enforcement, FAA regulation-type departments, etc.

Consulates General have all offices under one roof, and usually the head office for various overseas initiatives. The British Consulate General in NYC houses the head trade office. All trade program projects in the USA are scheduled out of the NYC office. Their (outward) trade department alone takes up one or two floors. They also have an inward investment department, the Americas office for Visit UK (tourism), the British Council (promoting arts and education), and a variety of other offices I am probably forgetting. In addition to these offices, the consulate general has a consular office, visa office and press and public affairs. The consular and visa offices will be quite large if they are servicing a large region. Other British Consulates General across the country will have additional offices, for instance, the consulate general in LA has the UK films office, Houston has an office concentrating on Science and Technology. All of the offices will have additional space and meeting rooms for events and other functions.

As for specific space, I worked at a Consulate, not a Consulate General and we had an entire floor of an office building for 10 people. The reason for this was partially because of security and partially because of some sort of status-based budget and square footage allocation requirements.

Hope this info helped shed some light on the topic. If you have other questions, feel free to ask.
posted by necessitas at 3:46 PM on May 29, 2007

Perhaps diplomats and their families also live in some of these consulates?

When my dad was posted to a U.S. consulate in China in the early '90s, we lived on the 7th floor of a 14-story building, the biggest big shot was on the top floor, the 9th floor was all shared community space for other Americans who lived in the building, and the bottom three floors were for conducting business.

In other countries, we had off-site government-owned housing most of the time, and sometimes I think we had an allowance to find our own housing. Security and the ability to limit spying, in addition to financial concerns, played in to how we were housed in various countries.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:47 PM on May 29, 2007

Having been to the Nigerian UN mission a number of times, the mission (and the attached consulate) only takes up a couple of floors - the remainder is rented out to various other activities. Basically, owning the building is an investment (turning oil money into pricey real estate).
posted by SenshiNeko at 2:10 PM on June 3, 2007

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