Monday, June 27, 2011

Security Concerns Delay Completion of Capital Master Plan

By Herve Couturier | Jun 15, 2011

The increased protections from possible "blasts" will add only six months to the project.

Security concerns, stemming from recent terrorist attacks against United Nations compounds around the world, will mean at least six months’ delay in the renovation of New York headquarters, says the head of the project.

Michael Adlerstein, UN assistant secretary-general and executive director of the Capital Master Plan, as the project is known, said in a recent interview with The InterDependent that the concerns were raised by the U.S. government, the UN's own security service and the City of New York.

Adlerstein would not give many details about the nature of the security anxieties but said that "there were assumptions about the level of blast that might be experienced."

He also said that those returning to work in the Secretariat building when it was finished would be rethought as to who needed to be near the secretary-general the most.

The new security scrutiny led to a pause of about six months in the restoration of two of the headquarters buildings, that of the Conference building and the General Assembly hall, delaying completion of the whole project to 2014, instead of 2013, as previously planned. The extra cost, about $100 million, was paid by the U.S. in February.

The UN complex, situated on 17 acres along the East River in Midtown Manhattan, includes the landmark 39-story glass and steel Secretariat tower, the domed General Assembly hall and the conference building with its many large meeting rooms. The complex was completed in 1950, but the Dag Hammarskjold Library and the South Annex were added later.

Six decades since the headquarters’ original construction, the entire compound had leaking roofs, was riddled with asbestos and lacked adequate fire detectors, a sprinkler system and other emergency safety devices.

The enormous overhaul, begun in May 2008, aims to make the buildings more energy efficient and bring them into conformity with New York City health and safety codes, while improving security. The initial renovation plan was for the project to be done in five years to the tune of nearly $1.9 billion.

Isabella Penney for UNA-USA
The renovation of the Secretariat building at New York headquarters is on schedule, says the UN. Here, an early-morning shot in June.

Adlerstein stressed that the work on the Secretariat building "is moving very well, right on schedule."

"It was supposed to be finished in early 2012, and it will be finished within a few months of when we originally said it would," he said.

He added that the work on the conference building and the General Assembly hall had also been on schedule "until we had to pause for several months."

"The host country, along with the UN security service and the host city, determined that the risks to the UN had elevated in recent years and that the UN needed to protect itself a little better on the perimeter, to stiffen the perimeter of the compound," he said.

Aware of the delicate nature of any UN-related financing, Adlerstein quickly noted that "the host country also stated that they would pay for it."

"It took a few months for them to secure the funding, but now that's done", he said. "In the process we lost some time, so for the Conference building and the General Assembly portion of the project, which are sequential, we will finish in 2014."

Elaborating on the issues of security, he said: "Over the years since the beginning of the project, the UN has been attacked several times, in Baghdad, in Algiers, in other places, and there have been incidents in New York where terrorists were able to almost achieve success, in Times Square and other incidents. So there was a concern that we should raise the level of protection, and that means making the building stiffer from a larger blast from outside, from the roadways around the four sides of the UN.

“We are taking care of the blast within the compound, and we count on the host city and the host country to protect us from blast from outside the compound. So we needed to stiffen up and they have provided the funding for us to do that."

Adlerstein’s goal is to have the General Assembly back in its renovated hall for the yearly general debate of September 2014, thereby limiting to only one year the inconvenience of member countries’ having to meet in temporary quarters in the windowless structure on the North Lawn of the UN.

He also explained that they were aiming to finish the Conference building at the end of 2012; it is now operating in swing space in the North Lawn building. That space will then become the temporary home for the General Assembly, where it will hold its 2013 annual debate.

"Everyone understands we had a delay for a little while," he added, noting that the member countries are pleased that the project is so far staying close to budget. "We're about 4 percent over budget. When we started the project, we were about 10 percent over budget,” but they have been “gaining on that every year and getting better."

Alma Hidalgo for UNA-USA
When the Secretariat is done, it will accommodate about 3,700 people, as before, but the staff will be prioritized to include under secretaries-general and assistant secretaries-general.

When everything is done, the Secretariat building, which housed about 3,700 people before the renovation, will accommodate roughly the same number. But "it might not be the same people," Adlerstein said, adding, "We are moving back to what's called the leadership concept, so that the leadership of the UN will be in the Secretariat."

The UN began with everyone in the Secretariat, but over time, departments established afterward were put into rental space, and the Secretariat staff -- the Department of Field Support, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and others -- "grew exponentially outside the compound."

"So this is our opportunity to intelligently restack the Secretariat with the people that the secretary-general needs."

All personnel, he pointed out, are valuable to the secretary-general, "but some of them need to be on call very quickly all the time,” so they are bringing back all the under secretaries-general and assistant secretaries-general into the Secretariat to make that building, as many corporate and governmental headquarters are, “the leadership of the organization."

Those who cannot be brought back into that area will be set up in rental space. "We only fit half our organization inside the compound; the question for the CMP is which half comes into the compound, so it will be the leadership half," he said.

Adlerstein joined the UN when the renovation project started in 2007 and has had a career in historic preservation, including working as chief architect for the Department of Interior, mainly restoring national parks like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

A primary goal of the UN project is to make it as "green” as possible. "We're going to cut the energy consumption by 50 percent, cut the water consumption by 45 percent, cut our operations so that we continue to use less fuel and less energy in the future," he said.

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