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Trouble At Turtle Bay

The numbers for the U.N.'s new renovation project just don't add up.

1:10 PM, May 16, 2005 • By JOHN HINDERAKER
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THE UNITED NATIONS has been in the news of late. As usual, most of the news is negative: evidence suggesting that one or more members of the Security Council were bribed by Saddam; an inability to deal effectively with various crises in Africa; the embarrassing presence of nations such as Iran, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, and Saddam's Iraq on U.N. commissions on human rights, proliferation and weapons of mass destruction; the oil for food scandal.

In the midst of these controversies, the United Nations is proceeding with plans to upgrade its Manhattan headquarters. The organization's headquarters at Turtle Bay were completed in 1950 and renovated in the 1970s. The United Nations now believes that another renovation project is necessary, and has prepared a $1.2 billion plan to carry out the work.

While the construction is underway, the organization will need to be housed elsewhere. In its original form, the U.N. plan included construction of a new, 35-story building over Robert Moses Playground, a park near Turtle Bay, at a cost of an additional $650 million. This new building was slated to be the U.N.'s home during the renovation project, and to continue in use by the organization thereafter.

It was the construction of this new building--for which approval by the New York legislature was required--that first drew public criticism of the project. Bipartisan opposition to the new building stalled legislative action in the New York Senate. With no sign that senators opposing the project would relent, Kofi Annan, on May 10, issued a statement urging the United Nations to abandon its plan for the new building, on the ground that it could not now be completed in time for its projected use as a temporary home. Instead, the United Nations will look for existing office space elsewhere in Manhattan.

There has been little debate over the broader issue of the renovation project itself, perhaps because so few people are aware of it. Establishment figures such as Colin Powell, Ed Koch, and Mortimer Zuckerman have been enlisted to head a committee to lobby for the project. With the notable exception of the New York Sun, however, the press has been virtually silent. This seems odd, in view of the serious questions that have been raised about the cost of the renovation.

The U.N.'s Capital Master Plan states that a total of 2,651,000 square feet will be renovated. Assuming that figure to be correct, the per square foot cost would be $452. But, as reported by the Sun, real estate experts question whether the U.N.'s facilities contain anywhere near that amount of space. According to the U.N.'s website, the organization's headquarters include four main structures, whose size has been estimated as follows:

* Secretariat Building: 39 floors and three subfloors, approximately 500,000 square feet.

* General Assembly Building: Five total floors, approximately 380 ft. by 160 ft., or 304,000 square feet.

* Conference Building: Four stories, approximately 115,000 square feet.

* Dag Hammarskjold Library: Four stories and two sublevels, 219 ft. by 84 ft., total 110,376 square feet.

If these estimates are correct, only around 1,029,000 square feet will be renovated under the U.N.'s proposal. At a total cost of $1.2 billion, the project would then weigh in at over $1,100 per square foot.

Either of these figures is regarded by local real estate developers as stunning. The New York Sun reported on February 4, 2005:

The United Nations has said its plans to renovate its headquarters at Turtle Bay will cost $1.2 billion.

That strikes Donald Trump as far too much. "The United Nations is a mess," the developer said yesterday, "and they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars unnecessarily on this project."

And he's not the only one. Several Manhattan real-estate experts told The New York Sun this week that renovating premium office space should cost a fraction, on a per-square-foot basis, of what U.N. officials expect to pay.

An executive managing director at the commercial real-estate firm Julien J. Studley Inc., Woody Heller, said a thorough renovation of an office building would probably cost between $85 and $160 per square foot.