Monday, October 22, 2007

NEW YORK — Authorities are considering emptying the massive U.N. headquarters building for at least three years to get a long-delayed renovation project back on track and on budget, according to people who have been briefed on the plan.

Member states’ deliberations and security considerations have left the $1.8 billion renovation a year behind schedule, with every month adding roughly $10 million to the overall cost of the project.

Now the construction officials are considering emptying and rehabbing the 39-story Secretariat building on New York’s East River all at once, abandoning a controversial plan to do the work in 10-floor sections of an otherwise occupied building.

Critics have long complained about the plan’s risks, noting that the tower is 44 years old, riddled with asbestos and lacking a sprinkler system.

Moving approximately 4,500 people out of the glass-and-marble landmark will increase the cost of temporary office space, according to diplomats briefed on the plan, but significantly cut down on construction costs and speed up the work.

“I think we are doing well,” said Michael Adlerstein, the newly hired executive director of the Capital Master Plan, as the renovation effort is known.

“The architects and engineers are on it. We have 90 percent of the construction documents. We are going to tweak [the plan] again for value engineering. We’ll see where you can change systems or phasing to save money.”

Skanskia Building USA, an internationally known construction behemoth, has been hired to oversee the construction, which is to end by 2014.

Mr. Adlerstein refused to discuss specifics before they have been vetted by U.N. management committees, but in a recent interview he seemed optimistic that he could bring the project back to budget and make up for lost time.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has affirmed the need to overhaul the U.N. buildings, and there has been little resistance, in principle, from member states. However, the costs associated with the project have been difficult to resolve, leading to painful and protracted discussions that participants describe as both fiscal and political.

The estimated $1.8 billion costs will be borne by U.N. members, with the U.S. slated to pay $396 million over five years. The U.S. share is in proportion to its share of overall U.N. operating costs.

The architect and historian said architectural and design elements from the iconic building will be salvaged, refurbished and reinstalled after the demolition.

“We’re going down to concrete slab and steel beams,” Mr. Adlerstein said, promising that when the building is reopened, the public will not notice a change.

But those who work inside the building certainly will: Modern office layouts, new furniture and 21st-century heating and cooling will make the space more comfortable. The windows — originally clear but now covered with blue-green blast film to reduce the danger of flying glass shards — will be restored to the symbolic transparency intended by the original team of architects.

The windows — a 39-story curtain exposed to wind, rain, pollution and terrorist threats — pose some of the trickier elements of the renovation.

When architects began designing glass curtain walls in the 1950s, they were not worried about terrorist attacks or the high cost of energy.

Triple-glazed thermal windows with proper safety glass and efficient systems will reduce the organization’s annual $13 million utility bill by as much as 40 percent, Mr. Adlerstein said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told presidents and prime ministers last month that he has been losing sleep over the renovation, but was optimistic that it will be safer and greener, and finished in half the time originally allotted.

Another challenge will be to find enough affordable office space in the drum-tight Manhattan real estate market.

The organization has secured space in Queens for the U.N. Library and some of the back-office functions. An empty midrise building near the U.N. compound will be renovated to house another 750 employees.

Authorities are negotiating to lease a former bank headquarters to house another 2,200 staffers, U.N. officials confirmed.

The central domed General Assembly building will be among the first buildings in the 17-acre compound to be renovated. If construction starts in the spring as planned, world leaders will convene next autumn in a hangerlike temporary building with few frills.

Mr. Ban and his closest aides will be moved into temporary quarters inside the U.N. compound, at the request of the Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Police Department.

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