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Canadian government gets flak over location of US Embassy

Hundreds of green ``Save the Circle'' signs are posted on the lawns of two affluent neighborhoods here, Rockcliffe and Manor Park. What they want to save is a vacant 52-acre site abutting these districts, and what they want to save ``Mile Circle'' from, is a new United States Embassy.

At present, the embassy is located in a stately old mansion directly across Wellington Street from Canada's Parliament buildings. That prominent location has troubled some Canadian nationalists, seeing it as a symbol of US interference in Canadian affairs.

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But the Rockcliffe and Manor Park householders insist that there are no anti-American feelings involved in their campaign against a National Capital Commission plan for using 10 acres of the grassy Circle property for the embassy.

``That's not the problem,'' says Maria Wade, a Manor Park resident. ``It is that the embassy would use up park land.''

The Canadian government covets the current US Embassy property, possibly as a home for the prime minister's staff. In 1973, the government of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked the US to consider moving into a new chancellery.

US Embassy officials would be only too glad to oblige. The embassy's staff of 150 is currently scattered in several downtown locations, and officials are worried about the security of the present chancellery. But the problem is finding a suitable site.

The National Capital Commission, a federal agency created in 1948 to develop Ottawa into a more beautiful capital, insists that only Mile Circle can give the US Embassy sufficient space for security (minimum 100-foot setbacks from the property lines) and a prestigious location ``for a major ally,'' as a spokesman put it.

Moreover, contrary to what the neighbors think, the commission insists that the Circle is not a park. The neighbor-protestors note that the commission makes no payments in lieu of taxes to the local government on the former race-track site, whereas it does so on its other ``nonpark'' properties. They also see the embassy as a security risk to their neighborhoods -- with the prospect of embassy guards patroling with submachine guns.

By the end of May or early June, the Capital Commission expects to receive a report from a consultant, Project Planning Canada Ltd., on how best to locate the embassy in Mile Circle, providing a ``campus-like setting.'' It talks of fancying up the remaining acreage perhaps with a Japanese garden.

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But the neighbors, with friends in high places, promise to continue their protest campaign as long as necessary. Political opposition leaders have already announced their objections to the choice of the site. The House of Commons Transport Committee will look at one aspect of the issue Thursday. The Cabinet is expected to make the final decision.

The US is caught in the middle of the dispute. Says Embassy Press Attach'e Victoria Cordova: ``We regret the fact that the prospective neighbors are not happy about us moving in. We think we would be good neighbors. We would rather go into an area that would welcome us. However, the opposition will not deter us from accepting the spot.''

In Washington, there is a new Canadian Embassy under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue near Congress. Though the circumstances regarding this excellent location are entirely different, the US still sees some element of reciprocity in obtaining a good Ottawa embassy site.

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