Monday, April 17, 2006

NEW YORK — U.S. concerns are holding up preliminary work on a $1.6 billion plan to renovate the aging United Nations headquarters, potentially boosting the price of the seven-year construction scheme, according to a senior U.N. official.

The U.N. General Assembly’s budget committee was to have authorized $100 million for land surveys, architectural work, consultants and other routine pre-construction work by April 1, according to Louis Frederick Reuter, the executive director of the Capital Master Plan.

“We have unanimous commitment to everything, except for the United States,” which would be the largest contributor to the scheme, Mr. Reuter told a group of American reporters yesterday. “I won’t kid you, we are frustrated.”

If the committee cannot approve the spending before it adjourns at the end of the week, Mr. Reuter said, costs will continue to rise as work is delayed, contracts are renegotiated and key personnel leave.

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said yesterday that Washington was prepared to approve $23.5 million worth of contracts but wasn’t likely to endorse the full $100 million any time soon.

“We are certainly not trying to do anything to slow this down, but we want to proceed in a careful and prudent fashion,” he said. “I don’t think the justification has been made yet on the full $100 million. But, as I say, we are looking for a number in between, and we are prepared to deal on that basis.”

The United States likely will be responsible for 22 percent of the cost of the $1.6 billion project, the same percentage it pays toward the overall U.N. budget based on its share of the global gross domestic product. The Bush administration has requested $22 million — its presumed share of the initial $100 million — in its current budget request, which is pending in Congress.

The plan to renovate the 56-year-old building has been approved in principle by the General Assembly, and is undergoing its third review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The previous GAO assessments found the work to be necessary and appropriate.

The U.N. compound includes about 2.5 million square feet of floor space, ranging from an underground printing plant to the widely photographed General Assembly and Security Council chambers to about 30 floors of outdated office space.

The renovation will be conducted in stages and is not expected to be finished before 2014.

Under the current proposal, the United Nations in January will build a concrete-walled shell, sort of like an airplane hangar, to house the General Assembly on the present U.N. grounds.

Once the assembly chambers have been renovated, the space will be reconfigured to house meeting rooms for the Security Council and other bodies as well as several conference rooms. After that, the shell will be scrapped and the north lawn replanted.

The Secretariat tower will be gutted and rebuilt approximately 10 floors at a time, starting from the top. The remaining floors will continue to be occupied while work goes on.

The Secretariat tower, a modernist icon with blue-green glass walls, is rapidly deteriorating: In recent weeks, Mr. Reuter said, plaster has fallen from the roof of the Security Council chamber, and workmen have detected bulges on the foundation’s south wall, the likely result of wind and rain.

The mechanical systems also are severely overtaxed, with electrical outages and blown phone lines increasingly common. The asbestos-coated headquarters also would fail New York state building codes, because it lacks sprinklers and fire alarms.

“The building is falling down. I can’t wait years for this. It’s an unsafe building, and I have to fix it up,” Mr. Reuter said.

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