Global Policy Forum

Without Action Now, the UN Capital Master Plan Is Not Going Anywhere Anytime Soon


Carina Kjelstad*

United Nations Association of the United States of America
May 16, 2006

The Capital Master Plan for renovating United Nations headquarters in New York City was set to begin this June with the completion of the project expected by 2014. Despite agreement among member states that UN headquarters is in desperate need of repair, the General Assembly has not yet reached agreement on a single renovation strategy, a project budget or a financing plan; meanwhile, the landmark building continues to deteriorate. On May 11, Louis Frederick Reuter, executive director for the Capital Master Plan, spoke to UNA-USA's Council of Organizations in New York about the current state of the project.

Reuter will step down from his position on June 30, after only 10 months on the job, saying that while it was a personal decision, the politics of the UN had a bit to do with it. "I have been frustrated by a number of factors, all working together, including the lack of clear support by many major stakeholders and difficulties of working within UN practice as it applies to a large building project."

UN headquarters was quite revolutionary when it was built in the early 1950s as a project between several renowned international architects, among them Le Corbusier of France, Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil and Wallace Harrison of the United States. According to Reuter, the UN campus that exists today along Manhattan's First Avenue is actually a compromise using independent solutions developed by these architects.

An architect himself, Reuter eagerly explained how the building was designed to capture the message of the UN. "There are three architectural elements that accomplish three different functions within the UN. Each of those functions found their own expression architecturally and they connect together in a manner that encourages the meeting of member nations and people; in essence, the design actually brings people together to talk.

Today, the main three buildings—the tall Secretariat, the General Assembly hall and the Conference Building—receive 1.5 million visitors a year, host 191 member states and witness 8,000 annual meetings. These numbers definitely exceed the intended capacity of the campus, which was built at a time when there were only 70 member states to the UN and around 700 meetings per year. It is therefore clear, according to Reuter that "those buildings have been doing a pretty good job for the last 60 years, but they are getting a little tired to say the least. If you go behind the scenes, in the public spaces you have already noticed, quite frankly, it is a bit shabby," he said. There are museum style controls and pieces of mechanics work that Reuter is amazed are still running.

Built on "international soil," UN headquarters has not kept pace with the ever-changing building and fire safety standards of New York City over the last six decades. There is no sprinkler system in the high rise Secretariat, posing a fire safety hazard; asbestos is present in various parts of the construction; the building does not meet the latest handicapped or security access standards; and it is highly energy inefficient. With renovation, the heating bill could be reduced by as much as 30 percent, according to Reuter.

The initiative for the Capital Master Plan started in 1995 when the General Assembly decided to look carefully at the problem of the deteriorating building. The detailed review and analysis of the building status was completed by early 2001. Member states then considered two approaches to updating the building: an accelerated maintenance effort and a complete rebuilding. The later concept was endorsed and entitled the "Capital Master Plan" in 2001. The plan has a rather simple goal: to make all the existing buildings code compliant by bringing them up to today's building standards. According to Reuter, "The project was from the beginning defined as respect for the historical significance of the site, not an expansion of space or a new center for world government. The fundamental Capital Master Plan scope is: what you see is what you get, it just gets us up to the latest building standards, equipment and systems."

The member states then considered what would be the best strategy for completely renovating UN headquarters: either in a single phase by moving everyone off-site, or a longer phased project with most functions remaining functional on-site. An architect was hired in 2001 to look at all the possible alternatives of each strategy and, in the end, it was decided that a single phase approach was more desirable. Simultaneous with this UN study, the UN Development Corporation, which is not affiliated with the UN, but acts as the landlord of much of the UN's office space that is located off of headquarters, indicated an interest in building a "swing space" building for the Capital Master Plan on the Robert Moses Park. The UN and the Development Corporation then embarked on an effort to make their two plans work together. But, by early 2005, these efforts were stalled. Early rental projections for the Development Corporation's "swing space" building had risen from $95 million to almost $250 million due to a number of factors, including construction cost pressures following the recovery from September 11th, 2001. Additionally, the New York State Legislature refused to approve the new building.

Beginning in fall 2005, the UN General Assembly asked the Capital Master Plan team to quickly investigate alternative strategies. Several alternatives were studied in detail and compared with each other according to a series of decision standards. These strategies and the recommended course of action were presented to the General Assembly in The Third Report of the Secretary-General on the Capital Master Plan on November 1, 2005. The recommended strategy, known as Strategy IV, is based on a multi-year, multi-phased renovation program primarily confined to UN headquarters with only a small amount of off-site rental space required. The budget for Strategy IV was projected at $1.6 billion and a proposal for financing the project by member nation assessment was recommended as well.

The budget was based on a set of detailed design development drawings and several market tested construction cost estimates. "We have a set of well-prepared documents which give a very reliable indication of costs assuming the recommended strategy, schedule and financing plan," said Reuter.

The proposals have been discussed in great detail by the General Assembly's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, and the Fifth Committee, in many sessions beginning last November; these discussions are continuing even today.

Despite the ongoing debate, the strategy, financing plan and budget for the Capital Master Plan have not been set by the General Assembly. Additional funds in various amounts have been offered to the Capital Master Plan team to get started, but the vast bulk of these funds have been given with a caveat that they should not be spent in such a way to prejudice the consideration of strategies other than the recommended Strategy IV. This restriction makes it difficult to proceed with certain aspects of the plan, such as beginning to lease office space or starting on plans for a potential new building.

The plan is further complicated by the fact that it is being considered as a part of overall ongoing UN reform discussions. As Reuter described, the plan may be merely "a chip of the poker game of reform." An additional challenge is the additional assessments for the Capital Master Plan that will be required of the large contributing member states. For example, the US portion of the plan would be 22 percent, or roughly $350 million of the $1.6 billion budget.

"The US government has refused to engage this problem and does not seem to understand the difficulties that flow from its continued delay," said William H. Luers, president of the UNA-USA.

Ambassador Luers has been involved in talks about the capital master plan since 1998, largely due to his idea and push for a UN Visitors Center that would accompany a newly renovated UN campus. The center, which would be privately funded, would enhance the educational purpose of the organization and would be housed underground beneath the north lawn. The center proposal was received by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Secretariat with enthusiastic support, and was actually approved by the General Assembly as part of the 2001 Capital Master Plan. Like the rest of the plan, the center too has been held up by repeated setbacks. "If the UN's host government, the US government, does not get firmly behind this project," said Amb. Luers, "it will not happen no matter what the UN system tries to accomplish. Meanwhile, a great deal of money is being wasted, the UN's buildings are being put increasingly at risk and the project is losing highly qualified professionals who could get the job done."

It is important to note that the US government, while fighting over funding for the Capital Master Plan, has supported and been involved with the project's planning over the years. But during the recent debates and effort to reach final agreement, the US mission to the UN has refused to take a position or to engage in the discussion of what needs to be done, added Amb. Luers. Specifically, the US Mission has not helped clarify to the other UN member states what the US government requires to give its support for the capital master plan.

As it stands now, the future of the Capital master Plan is problematic. In response to questions about opportunities for UNA USA to assist in moving the project along, Reuter talked about a number of efforts and ideas that might benefit the plan:

• Provide clear and factual information to the US public, Congress and the media;

• Consider involving an international body of architectural opinion—beyond that of the US—to encourage the preservation and restoration of the buildings. For example, Reuter recently traveled to Brazil at the suggestion of several South American countries to meet with original architect Oscar Niemeyer, now 98 years old; and

• Consider the development of the aforementioned Visitor's Center to provide information about the UN and capital master plan in advance of the renovation project.

"The dialogue that is currently going on, far above mere architects like myself, is what is the future of the United Nations and how is it to work going forward, and I think until that is done, the politics of the capital master plan may remain tied to that dialogue," said Reuter. "All of [the nations are], I think, holding their breaths that the buildings will still be there when they finish this argument."

About the Author: Ms. Kjelstad is a UNA-USA communications intern and a graduate student at Seton Hall University's John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy.

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