Home The Washington Diplomat July 2008 U.N. Headquarters in New York Gets Badly Needed Facelift

U.N. Headquarters in New York Gets Badly Needed Facelift


Asbestos, bad lighting, faulty ventilation, leaky roofs, inadequate security and dated décor. All of these problems — and more — should be eliminated as the United Nations in New York receives its highly publicized and controversial class=”import-text”>2008July.United Nations.txt.9 billion facelift that officially began in May.

Donning hard hats and gleaming new shovels, U.N. officials, led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, broke ground May 5 on construction of a temporary conference venue at the world body’s New York headquarters. The symbolic display of progress marked a landmark moment in the beginning of a five-year overhaul of the world-famous complex.

“Over these five years, we will make our facilities safer and more modern.We will make them greener and more efficient,” Ban declared at the groundbreaking.“As we conduct this work, we will never lose sight of the original purpose of our founders when they erected these buildings almost 60 years ago: promoting a safer, more peaceful and more just world.”

Although the project — dubbed the Capital Master Plan (CMP) — has been widely criticized for cost overruns and ever-evolving plans, U.N. officials are optimistic that the massive undertaking is finally heading in the right direction.

“The CMP certainly had a slow start in its early stages, and went through a number of different approaches and redesigns, which the General Assembly approved in its final form only in December of 2007,” said William Davis, director of the U.N. Information Center in Washington, D.C.“But we are currently very much on the right track.”

The original U.N. structure, built almost 60 years ago, is in a state of serious disrepair and lacks the aesthetic, safety and security standards of the heavily used, modern government buildings of today. Renovation proponents also contend that the improvements will usher in a new era of environmentally friendly architectural features, including the use of some solar power. In addition, as part of the greening of the United Nations, 150 trees will be planted in and around the headquarters during the landscaping phase.

“One of the primary objectives of the Capital Master Plan is to renovate the facilities, and the grounds, as a model of sustainability for the rest of the U.N. system,” according to a statement issued by the CMP Office. “These new trees, in the heart of NYC, will reinforce that objective.”

The U.N. complex encompasses more than 17 acres and includes six buildings totaling about 2.6 million square feet. Although some suggested constructing completely new facilities, it was ultimately determined that renovation would be the most cost effective way to replace aging and inefficient equipment, upgrade safety, and keep the thousands of people who work at the United Nations from having to endure temporary work-spaces for too long.

Still, the five-year renovation project will displace about 5,000 U.N. workers to rented space in Manhattan, Long Island and a temporary office on the U.N. grounds. The main Secretariat Tower, an internationally recognized landmark of steel and glass, will retain the same look, but will be vastly improved from the inside and fortified to withstand a blast or natural disaster.

Although there was never any serious discussion about demolishing the New York buildings and erecting a new United Nations in some other country, informal offers were made by some governments. U.N. officials, however, have not ruled out moving some U.N. functions to another member nation’s soil.

“Informal offers have been made by other countries — there is always an opportunity and certainly it is conceivable that some functions could be offloaded to other headquarters,” the CMP Web site says.

But overall, officials contend that the problems necessitating a renovation of the New York complex are largely associated with natural aging, not the basic construction, and hence it didn’t make sense to demolish the old structures and rebuild from scratch.

“Demolition would neither save time nor money,” the project’s Web site proclaims. “The hazardous materials would have to be removed first, the buildings would have to be demolished floor by floor, and every single function would have to find a temporary home elsewhere.”

Despite the cost savings by not rebuilding from the ground up, the project still comes with a seemingly staggering price tag, which is being paid by the 192 U.N. member states, with the United States picking up by far the largest portion of the bill, about 22 percent. (The member states are being assessed the costs either over a five-year period or a one-time payment upfront.)

Hesham Mohamed Eman Afifi, a U.N. diplomat from Egypt, once quipped that the only facet of the project that regularly met its deadline was the billing of member nations for construction costs.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequently harsh critic of the organization, recently told FOX News that that amount is roughly equivalent to the cost that the United States pays each year for U.N. operations.

“The easy thing to do was give us 22 percent of the bill, which they were happy to do,” Bolton said. But during that interview, Bolton conceded that the renovations would bring much-needed security improvements to the old buildings.“It doesn’t have many of the modern things you need to be sure about security,” he said.

The Bush administration, which has sporadically criticized many facets of the United Nations over the past seven years, also had some major misgivings about the project. But the administration now seems resigned to the cost and time involved, and has generally been supportive as the construction gets under way. “The Bush administration, after investigating every nook and cranny of the CMP, now seems to be firmly behind it,” said Davis of the U.N. Information Center.

The CMP effort actually marks the third attempt in a decade to rehabilitate the aging U.N. headquarters. According to the New York Times, “The first plan was halted in 2005 when the New York State Legislature, angry about diplomats’ unpaid parking tickets, mismanagement of the Iraq oil-for-food program and what lawmakers viewed as the United Nations’ anti-Israel bias, refused to pass enabling legislation to construct a new annex on an underused city playground next door.”

The second time around, veteran architect Louis Frederick Reuter IV resigned after growing frustrated with persistent objections from Congress and the U.N. bureaucracy.

U.N. officials hope the third time is the charm with Michael Adlerstein, a Brooklyn-born former National Park Service architect who devised the CMP. According to Adlerstein, the challenge of the renovation will be to respect the original design, while bringing its performance and safety into the 21st century.“Our opportunity is to make this complex a model of energy efficiency and sustainable design,” he noted.

Adlerstein has been involved in the preservations of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, New York Botanical Garden and the Taj Mahal — and he has more than two decades of experience dealing with Washington lawmakers, a necessary credential for the U.N. job.

Congressional critics, often spurred on by Republican Sen.Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, were for years vehement in their opposition to the renovation, and especially the cost to U.S. taxpayers.

“As a generous contributor to the United Nations, the American people and their elected representatives have a right to demand that the world body spends their tax dollars wisely,” Coburn said in 2006. “Congress should withhold funding for this renovation, which has already been mismanaged, until the United Nations casts more sunshine on its budget practices.”

Not all of the Capitol Hill critics have been silenced, but Congress has approved the U.S. share of the project.

“There are still some critics on Capitol Hill, but we’ve worked extensively to address their concerns,” Davis said.“The FY 2008 appropriations bill containing the funds for the U.S. contribution to the CMP passed through both chambers of the Congress successfully.”

The renovation project has endured its share of delays, cost overruns, bad publicity, public doubt and even ridicule from some quarters. But proponents of the massive undertaking are hopeful that the worst days are behind them and that the world will embrace the newly refurbished structure when it reopens in 2013.

According to Davis, “We’re going to finally have a building that is up to health and safety codes, will be massively more energy efficient, and will serve as a fitting place to carry on the ever-growing demands placed on the U.N. by its member states.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.