Creaky UN Building = Creaky UN?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/01/2007 04:32:00 PM
Controversial former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton once famously remarked that you could lop off the top ten floors of the UN building in New York and no one would notice in reference to the perceived bureaucratic sprawl and general ineptitude of the organization. In some ways, I too am critical of the UN for the very same reasons, although I am far more supportive of its various aims and goals--it's just that, yes, bureaucratic sprawl has led to general ineptitude there as various agencies mount petty turf wars handling basically the same things. That is, there is a large degree of overlap in what they do which could be addressed by merging many of these agencies. Have a look for yourselves at the alphabet soup of UN agencies.

Anyway, the UN is currently undergoing a bit of a change that may shake up the organization in ways to make it more streamlined and efficient. It turns out that while the iconic UN building still looks alright from the outside, it is crumbling on the inside. Can it be a metaphor for the UN itself--showing a brave face to the world but facing internal decay? Many unilateralists (like John Bolton) would probably agree, though I see it as an opportunity for organizational reform that really works. Instead of hiding out in the building's nooks and crannies, temporarily having to move out while remodeling and repairs are being carried out could place the various agencies in contact with each other more. Or, at least that's what one hopes. From the New York Times:
Cruise ships, barges, islands, tent settlements, a 30-story annex, a Wal-Mart-size building, even Brooklyn. All of them have been proposed by increasingly desperate United Nations officials as the place to locate thousands of employees and delegates while the organization’s stylishly timeless but dangerously antiquated 39-story headquarters are refurbished.

This decade-long search has ended now with a decision to begin a five-year, $1.876 billion renovation of the complex in the spring and to house the 2,600 people who must move out in rented space in Manhattan, across the East River in Long Island City and a temporary conference building on the United Nations campus.

The 55-year-old steel and glass Secretariat tower and its companion General Assembly Hall, sleek and shapely icons of postwar modernism, still look smashing from the outside, but their interiors are not wearing their years as well. Periodic surveys have cited asbestos insulation [!--it's a wonder no one's sued the UN over this as far as I know], lead paint, outmoded plumbing and electrical systems, lack of sprinklers, frequent power shutdowns and leaking roofs.

Those failings are serious, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg underlined in October by demanding that the organization immediately improve its fire safety plans with sprinklers, smoke detectors and exit signs or he would prohibit visits by city students to the building and alert the public to the danger. The United Nations has pledged to make the adjustments in the coming months.

But there are also quaint reminders of just how dated the installation is. Many of the companies that made the internal machinery have gone out of business, so the United Nations has its own shop to make replacement parts, and the originals are prized by industrial museums. On the 28th floor, a padlocked room housing electrical transformers has a “High Voltage” warning sign on its door that advises, “In case of necessity, call MUrray Hill 2-4477.” New York abandoned name telephone exchanges three decades ago.

The elaborate rehabilitation plan, which the General Assembly is expected to approve soon, is the third in a decade. Like many other urgent items on the United Nations agenda, the mission has met with repeated delays. Hesham Mohamed Eman Afifi, an Egyptian diplomat, said at budget committee hearings last month that the only element of the project that had stayed on schedule was the periodic bill received by member states.

The first plan was halted in 2005 when the New York State Legislature, angry about diplomats’ unpaid parking tickets, mismanagement of the Iraq oil-for-food program and what lawmakers viewed as the United Nations’ anti-Israel bias, refused to pass enabling legislation to construct a new annex on an underused city playground next door. The second was abandoned a year later after its architect, Louis Frederick Reuter IV, a veteran of large project management in New York, grew tired of fighting persistent objections from Congress and United Nations bureaucrats. He resigned.

The author of the new plan is Michael Adlerstein, 62, an affable Brooklyn-born former National Park Service architect involved in the preservations of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the New York Botanical Garden and the Taj Mahal and a man with 20 years of experience dealing with lawmakers in Washington. “I think there is now a general tone that I have found of total support to get this thing done,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with many of the member states on a one-to-one basis — the U.S. one of them — and I have found nothing but support.”

He is unfazed by the problems that have plagued past plans. “I took the job because it’s an ideal challenge for an architect at this point in my career,” he said. “It’s an iconic building of great stature in the world. You can show a picture of this building to people in remote, rural locations in the world and everyone will know it.”

While the famous exteriors will be unchanged, the insides will be brought up to 21st century standards of efficiency and security and reconfigured to consume 40 percent less energy. The glass curtain wall will be replaced by a heavily laminated one that appears identical but is far stronger and able to withstand the blast of a bomb attack. Energy-saving additions include sensors that turn off lights in unoccupied rooms and solar power systems.

“Ten years from now there will be no way to tell that the U.N. was renovated unless you look at the Con Ed bill,” Mr. Adlerstein said. He said that he was well aware of the bribery scandals that have scarred the reputation of the United Nations procurement department but that Skanska, the Swedish company that is the construction manager, an his own people would make sure nothing like that recurred.

“Skanska has its audits,” he said. “We have our own audits. There are several different levels of oversight to make sure this is done right. It will be done right. There’s too much money at risk here not to do it right.”

The cost of the project will be borne by the 192 member states in supplementary annual dues over the five-year period, with the United States responsible for 22 percent, or $413 million. The United Nations has leased office floors in a building at 305 East 46th Street and is negotiating for space nearby and in Lower Manhattan and Long Island City. Impatience comes slowly to the United Nations, but the timing seems to be right for Mr. Adlerstein. “The only question I get now,” he said, “is ‘You’re not going to leave, are you?’”