Wednesday, May 7, 2008

UN Gut Renovation Begins

I once saw Benon Sevan, when he was Assistant-Secretary-General in charge of general housekeeping at the UN, head into a meeting of the General Assembly's Budget Committee, brandishing a length of pipe crusty with age and wear. "These bastards don't believe me when I tell them the building is falling apart," he explained at the door to the conference room.

The pipe had been extracted from a bathroom that had sprung a leak and Benon held it up for delegates to see as he made the case for additional funds for repair and renovation. He got the money, but it took another leak, in the General Assembly's domed roof, to bring home to member States how decrepit the UN's physical plant had become.

When Kofi Annan first broached the idea of a general overhaul of the iconic UN building complex, he was asked why repairs couldn't just be done as and when they were needed. A study on options showed that the cost of such maintenance, some $1.1 billion, would be roughly the same as a gut renovation. The repair-as-you-go option would not have allowed the removal of the asbestos in UN walls, or brought the building into compliance with New York City fire and safety codes. Nor would it have upgraded security or expanded facilities which were originally meant to accommodate a membership of 75 countries and some 700 meetings a year. There are now 192 member States, and they hold over 8,000 meetings a year in New York.

The decision to go ahead with a total renovation was made in 1995, and the Swedish firm Skanska was given a $7 million pre-construction contract to chalk out what should be done. After much exciting talk of UN staff working in a cruise liner moored in the East River, or in tents pitched on the North Lawn, it was decided that a new building on a little-used city park across 42nd street, should be used as "swing space" while the renovation was in progress. But then some powerful real estate interests in New York raised the immortal question "What's in it for us!" Under pressure, the City Council and the state legislature in Albany turned down the proposal, and the UN decided to rent rather than build office space for staff. In March it signed a deal for 460,000 square feet of office space at 380 Madison Avenue. Most UN staff will operate from there once the Secretariat building is emptied in 2009; others will be scattered to several other locations, including the new UN Credit Union building across the East River in Long Island City.

The only new construction will be a temporary three-storied structure on the North Lawn, to house the UN's main intergovernmental bodies and the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. The UN Press corps will also continue to have a presence in the headquarters complex; where exactly has not been revealed. Whether the temporary facilities will have a Delegate's Lounge and Dining Room has also not been announced. UN Guided Tours will presumably be discontinued during the renovation, but the refurbished building will have a much expanded Visitor's Center.

On 5 May, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the temporary building. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a cohort of other "stakeholders" donned blue hard-hats and turned shovels of grass and dirt. "Today we turn the soil which the United Nations stands on to mark the rebirth, or renovation, of our headquarters," Ban intoned before he dug. "Over the next five years, we will make our facilities safer, greener, and more modern and efficient."

The architect overseeing the project, Michael Adlerstein, former Vice President of the New York Botanical Garden, told reporters that the temporary building on the North Lawn will be an ugly one, to prevent any proposal that it be kept in place permanently. He also said that most of the 25 trees on the site will be saved, and the site itself restored after the building comes down in five years.

The cost of the entire "Capital Master Plan" will be nearly $1.9 billion. (Donald Trump boasted in February that he could do the job for less -- $750 million -- and in less time than the currently projected five years; the UN responded that he should have put in a bid.) The money will come from governments, the bulk of it from the UN's richest member States. All of it will flow back into private coffers in a few affluent countries. Here's the line-up of major contractors:

Program Manager: Gardiner & Theobald, London
Construction Manager: Skanska USA Building, Parsippany, N.J.
Architect - Structural Engineer - Secretariat Building: HLW, New York
Architect - Conference Building, General Assembly Building: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering, Albany
Architect - Library: Helpern Architects, New York
Curtain Wall Consultant: R.A. Heintges & Associates, New York
M-E-P Engineer: Syska & Hennessy, New York
Space Programming Consultant: Perkins + Will, Chicago
Security Consultant: Kroll Schiff & Associates, New York
Building Code Consultant: Charles Rizzo Associates, New York.

1 comment:

Totalrenovering said...

Very nice post. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing.