Global Policy Forum

Renovation of UN Complex Stalled by US, Official Says


By Warren Hoge

New York Times
April 18, 2006

The director of the $1.6 billion plan to restore the aging and dilapidated headquarters of the United Nations said Monday that persistent objections from the United States were causing delays in meeting deadlines and jeopardizing the future of the entire project.

Under the plan, the United Nations intends to move its operations into a new temporary building on its existing campus and some office space in midtown Manhattan over the next seven years so that the iconic Secretariat and General Assembly buildings can undergo long-postponed refurbishment. If approved by the General Assembly, the arrangement will end a 10year search for updated space that has caused the United Nations to consider everything from housing on cruise ships to a move to Brooklyn.

"We're poised with an incredibly responsible set of drawings, completely tested in the market, tested by so many outside auditors that I don't want to tell you," said the plan's director, Louis Frederick Reuter IV, a veteran of large project management in New York, "and these are real costs, they are competitive, they are real good numbers for doing this kind of work in the city." "It's one of those moments in time that I don't think will be recreated if not acted on in a very short period of time," he said.

Before taking on the remodeling task in 2001, Mr. Reuter was responsible for the $1 billion rebuilding of New York/Weill Cornell Medical Center over the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. He said the absence of American agreement was resulting in rising costs and disillusioning the team of experts he had assembled for the task. "I won't kid you that we're not frustrated that this is being delayed and that the building is not getting healthier," he said. "We are very near consensus, and we are having issues not only with cost increases but also brain drain. There is a lot of other work out there going on in New York."

He said the current impasse had arisen when the United States emerged as the only country blocking $100 million that was to have been approved for the project by April 1. He calculated that the delay was increasing costs by $225,000 a day.

John R. Bolton, the American ambassador, said Monday that the United States had offered $23.5 million but was not convinced that the larger amount was needed at the moment. "I don't think the justification has been made yet on the full $100 million," he said. "We're not trying to slow this down," Mr. Bolton said, "but we want to proceed in a careful and prudent fashion. The United States thinks that $23.5 million is a lot of money and should carry a pretty good distance until we can have decisions by the General Assembly on some of the other critical questions, like what strategy the organization wants to follow."

Mr. Reuter said the American sum would cover only administrative and design expenses and would not allow the United Nations to move forward on its schedule for obtaining critical lease obligations and commitments to pre-construction work on the temporary building.

Periodic surveys of the 55-year-old structures on the East River, which were constructed under 1938 building codes, have pronounced them alarmingly behind the times and below minimal safety standards. They have cited asbestos insulation, lead paint, outmoded plumbing and electric systems, lack of sprinklers, frequent power shutdowns and leaking roofs. Mr. Reuter said plaster from the ceiling of the General Assembly fell to the floor last fall just days before 150 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs gathered there to commemorate the organization's 60th anniversary.

The plan calls for the staff to vacate 10 of the Secretariat building's 38 floors in four phases and to move to equivalent space to be leased in a midtown Manhattan office building. Under the arrangement, the secretary general and other Secretariat officials would move but not be obliged to leave the headquarters during the renovation. A temporary conference hall would be constructed on the sculpture lawn at the north reach of the United Nations campus at First Avenue and 46th Street. Mr. Reuter described it as "like a Wal-Mart, a gymnasium, a big box" and said it would be used in three phases to accommodate people whose work spaces were being overhauled.

The $1.6 billion cost would be covered by added dues assessments for the 191 member countries over five years. The United States, the largest contributor to the United Nations, would be responsible for 22 percent.

The proposal replaces an earlier renewal plan that called for the 3,600 people at the headquarters complex to move for five years to a new $330 million, 35-story building to be constructed on a playground next door. The United Nations had to abandon that plan in August after the New York State Legislature refused to pass enabling legislation.

Mr. Reuter said construction costs would be $405 a square foot, a rate he said was at the low end of the spectrum in New York. "I think that's a great number," he said. Mr. Reuter said he felt he needed approval by the end of this week when, he said, he understood that the budget committee of the General Assembly would be recessing until May. But Movses Abelian, the secretary of the panel, would not confirm that schedule, saying only that its work continued day by day.

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