UN Headquarters Set for a Face-Lift




UNITED NATIONS -- Its exterior marks the Manhattan skyline with a landmark skyscraper. But inside, water drips from the roof, toxic asbestos lines ceiling tiles and health hazards abound for thousands of employees.


The United Nations unveiled plans on Tuesday to use about $1 billion for an overhaul of its New York headquarters, a project that will take at least six years and probably involve constructing new structures next to or on top of the current complex on Manhattan's East River.


Joseph Connor, the undersecretary-general for management and administration, argued that a complete renovation would cost as much or less than paying for ongoing repairs and high energy costs.


He acknowledged an uphill battle in getting UN members to agree to the renovation, especially the United States, which owes more than $1.6 billion. While most said they knew the renovation was necessary, no one has yet uttered "yes, we will pay our share," Connor told a news conference.


At the end of World War II, architects from 11 nations designed the 39-story building and the sloping General Assembly hall. The glass-encased tower with its 2,450 windows was completed in 1952 and has become a top tourist attraction.


But, with the exception of the public lower floors, the interior is a 1950s jumble of hodgepodge offices. There is no sprinkler system; the plumbing is c orroded; the roof is spongy and soaked; and many walls and ceilings are insulated with asbestos. UN staff members also complain of high levels of electromagnetic fields, Connor said.


Any renovation would replace the wiring and communications outlets and put in efficient heating and cooling systems as well as abide by safety and environmental standards.


"Look at the ceilings. There are no sprinklers. And by the way, behind it is asbestos," said Connor, the former chief executive officer of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm.


"This building is architecturally very distinctive. It has been extremely functional. But it was built to 1950s standards. And we violate all of them, all the city codes," he said.


The project would require moving at least a third of the UN staff temporarily to another building, which could cost $60 million just for rent. Instead Connor proposed constructing new buildings near or on the UN grounds or even adding 11 floors to the UN library. This would cost some $245 million, but he said it would be cheaper in the long run.


Connor presented several plans for financing, including interest-free loans and public bonds that could raise the cost to $1.16 billion. But he said $1.64 billion would be spent over 25 years anyway to replace needed equipment.


"At the end of 25 years, it doesn't matter what we do. We will have charged the member states exactly the same amount of money," Connor said. But under the new plans, the United Nations would have a refurbished complex rather than buildings "in dire need of repair," he argued.


One way of raising funds would be through the United Nations Development Corp., a quasi New York government body established in 1968.


It can float bonds to provide office space at below-market rates under long-term leases to the United Nations, which can also include the option to own the property. Connor also hoped for interest-free loans from governments, as the United States did in 1948 after the Rockefeller family donated the land.


Connor said he expected the result to be "bits and pieces" of all the financing measures.


U.S. officials acknowledged the building had to be repaired. But the costs needed to be studied closely in Washington where Congress has been reluctant to pay any increases to the world body.