US wants streets moved for embassy

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THE CRANES swing night and day in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, conjuring up from the past the necklace of fine buildings that once adorned Berlin's glittering jewel. Soon their feverish dance will come to an end.

The last of the new monuments, a block housing a conference centre and luxury apartments, is nearly complete, leaving only one patch of grass fallow on the wasteland bequeathed by the war. Here once stood the US embassy, and here it will stand again, according to a plaque on the site. But the city and its mighty protector are locked in a slanging match over last-minute alterations which Berlin says would scar its historic centre. The Americans are refusing to budge.

The Berlin government has nothing against the building. It is a splendid design, say urban planners, with a fine courtyard reflecting local architectural tradition and a facade that fits neatly into the surroundings.

The Americans also like the look of the new embassy. After a long delay, the US government last month approved the price tag of $140 million (pounds 86.95m), some of which is to be recouped from the sale of redundant US property in Bonn. The German government is moving to Berlin next year, so the matter is urgent.

But since the design completed its journey through the labyrinth of US and German bureaucracy, something unforeseen happened. Two bombs went off in front of US embassies in East Africa, killing more than 200 people. As a result, and rather late in the day, the security people have entered the decision-making process.

And they do not like the Berlin blueprint, because the new embassy is too close to traffic. The rule is, they point out, that the walls of such compounds should be no less than 100 feet from the nearest road. Attractive though it may look as a model, the Berlin mission has two streets running past it, with only a narrow pavement separating it from potentially explosive vehicles. Oops.

So the diplomats came back to the Berlin Senate, the regional government, with a few suggestions. "We asked that their traffic pattern be moved back a bit," said Anne Shermak, the US press attache. Only by 100 feet. All they want is the removal of Ebertstrasse, a busy thoroughfare running north-south along the Brandenburg Gate, and of Behrenstrasse, a side- street. Problem solved.

Except that Berliners do not like to see their streets pushed about, especially in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate. To "move" Ebertstrasse would, in any case, involve chopping down trees in the Tiergarten, a political impossibility.

Behrenstrasse, until recently, presented an equally sensitive dilemma. Across the street from the would-be embassy is open ground surrounded by a wooden fence. This is where the gigantic Holocaust memorial was to be erected. Surely the Americans were not suggesting that this sacred project be scaled down for the benefit of their security?

Yet this is one of the few problems to have left the agenda. Any week now the new government in Bonn is to abandon plans for the memorial's construction and Behrenstrasse will become a moveable object. But this will still leave the other inconvenient street in place.

"We have run out of suggestions," said an official of the Berlin Senate. "The matter must now be resolved by the foreign ministry."

It will be a tricky one for Joschka Fischer, the new foreign minister, who is a Green and therefore a certified tree-lover. Whatever he opts for, the bond of friendship between the US and Berliners who this year turned out in their thousands to express their gratitude for the airlift 50 years ago, has been strained.

Ambassador John Kornblum described himself "unpleasantly surprised" by the Berlin Senate's public rejection of his attempts to find a solution. US diplomats speak of "ingratitude", while Berlin officials counter with accusations of "arrogance". This is no way to rekindle a beautiful relationship.