Monday, May 5, 2008

UN Begins HQ Overhaul After Years Of Wrangling

By Janet Whitman, Financial Post

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK - The United Nations is finally breaking ground for a massive overhaul of its dilapidated headquarters after a decade of wrangling over plans has added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost.

The projected bill for the five-year project has ballooned to nearly US$1.9-billion, up from an original estimate of around US$1-billion.

The UN's 192 member states are picking up the tab, with the United States shouldering 22% of the burden.

With delays already costing them a bundle, the member states are eager to get started.

The UN's gleaming exterior has held up well since being erected more than half a century ago near Manhattan's East River.

But since construction of the 38-storey Secretariat Tower and the domed General Assembly Hall was completed in 1952, the buildings have seen little in the way of renovation. Inside, ceilings are dotted with water stains from leaky roofs, the antiquated heating and cooling systems struggle to keep an even temperature, and the walls harbour asbestos and lead paint.

Plans for the much-needed renovation have dragged on as officials debated what to do with the 5,000 people who work in the complex while toxic materials are gutted.

At one point, they considered moving UN delegates and employees to a giant cruise ship docked on the East River next to the headquarters. Other proposals included popping up a series of tents on the 17-acre compound, finding a temporary home across the river in less-expensive Brooklyn or Queens, or picking up and leaving the United States altogether.

Officials thought they'd landed the thriftiest and most practical solution a few years ago with a proposal to construct a 35-storey tower in a nearby park, which would function as a "swing space" for workers displaced by the renovation and eventually be home to the additional 5,000 UN employees currently scattered around the city in various rented office spaces.

But that plan fell apart when New York State legislators, disenchanted by the UN over the scandal surrounding the Iraq oil-for-food program, refused to fund it.

The setback left UN officials scrambling to find affordable temporary space in Manhattan's red-hot commercial real estate market. They also had to figure out an interim home for officials too important to be stationed off the compound.

Worried about more mounting costs, the UN late last year approved a new proposal.

The start of the renovation gets underway today with a groundbreaking for construction of a temporary three-storey conference building on the compound's North Lawn.

As the old buildings are renovated, the pre-fab building will serve as the site for UN meetings and conferences, home of the Assembly and the Security Council, and the interim home for staff from the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. Thousands of other staffers will be relocated to office space around the city.

Michael Adlerstein, the architect who's in charge of executing the renovation, said the temporary building is deliberately being made to look ugly so people won't want to keep it standing after the renovation.

"It's going to be in the same style as a Costco or Wal-Mart," he said in an interview. "It will be functional."

To be safe, the budget also includes the building's demolition, he added.

Officials have shrunk the renovation schedule to five years from seven years to cut the risk of going over budget.

Once the overhaul is completed in 2013, the UN will look pretty much the same as it does now.

The two biggest changes, Mr. Adlerstein said, will be in its energy efficiency and security, both concerns that have increased dramatically since talk of the renovation began. The compound will be at least 30% more energy efficient, with new features such as air conditioning and lights that don't turn on until people enter a room. The famed glass curtain wall will be replaced with a material that can withstand the blast of a terrorist attack.

Mr. Adlerstein, who's worked on the rehabilitation of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Taj Mahal, said the UN renovation is his most challenging yet.

"The UN can't be put out of business even for one day, so everything needs to be done while the train is still moving," he said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put a spotlight on the renovation's growing sense of urgency late last year when he threatened to ban school field trips to the compound because of safety hazards. Six months earlier, a first-ever inspection by the New York Fire Department found 866 violations, including an insufficient number of smoke detectors and a lack of sprinklers.

UN reps shrugged their shoulders when asked whether chain-smoking diplomats would be likely to stop lighting up in the newly renovated headquarters.

The UN, which is technically international territory, hasn't been entirely successful with its attempt to implement the same smoking ban enforced by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003.

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