The United States is going broke, and the United Nations is morally bankrupt. So why should US taxpayers pay for UN bureaucrats to get swanky new offices -- destroying a New York City park in the process?
It’s all poised to happen, if the UN project can clear a key hurdle by Oct. 10.
For nearly a decade, the United Nations and the Bloomberg administration have eyed Robert Moses Playground, a small city park just south of UN headquarters, as the site for a new tower -- as tall as 505 feet -- in which to “consolidate” UN offices now scattered across the city.
The city would sell the park to the UN Development Corp. -- a state public-benefit corporation (on whose board sits Mayor Bloomberg’s sister, Marjorie Tiven) that manages UN real-estate needs. Once the corporation builds the new tower, the United Nations would supposedly vacate UN Plaza 1 and 2, which the city would put up for sale.
The money from these real-estate transactions would go into a special fund for East Side development, which could then cover the $150 million or more cost of completing the East Side “greenway” with an “esplanade” (complete with bike paths, of course) built over the water from 38th Street to 60th Street.
This June, the state Legislature finally cleared the way for the park to be “alienated” for sale as real estate. But that “alienation” won’t happen if a “Memorandum of Understanding” isn’t reached by Oct. 10. Needed are OKs from the mayor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, as well as the local representatives, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh and state Sen. Liz Krueger.
Many in the neighborhood pray that one of the politicians will refuse.
The East End Hockey Association, which has played at Robert Moses since 1972, opposes the swap. And Vivienne Gilbert, co-op president of 5 Tudor City Place, says area residents are worried about the project’s effect on their safety and quality of life.
Land next to the park is slated to become housing and office towers, so residents are especially concerned about light and air. The crowding caused by the new development, Gilbert adds, makes it all the more important to keep the playground open as recreational space.
Then there’s security. Not only does the park sit atop the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, but fitting a 39-story tower on the cramped site wouldn’t allow much “setback” from the street. These factors, Gilbert explains, increase the building’s appeal as a terrorist target -- and would require even stricter security in a neighborhood that already sometimes stifles under it.
Kavanagh insists that security concerns will be addressed, and that no plan will move forward unless adequate substitute park space is found; he’s “optimistic that we will work out a deal that is a win for the community.”
But there’s also the bigger picture: a potential multimillion-dollar bill for federal taxpayers.
As Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer noted in a recent paper, the United Nations would ultimately pay the UNDC for the tower -- but Uncle Sam shoulders a fifth or more of the UN budget. Estimates of the project’s cost run as high as $475 million.
Plus, the savings of “consolidating” UN staff into the new tower may not materialize. According to Schaefer, the United Nations pays half the market rate at UN Plaza 1 and 2; the new tower would mean giving up those favorable rents.
If it consolidates at all: Fox News recently reported that Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has gone on a hiring binge of late, increasing the size of his Secretariat from 2008 to 2009 by nearly 38 percent.
Americans may pay an even bigger price. Typically, the UNDC has financed its development through tax-exempt bonds, which amount to a subsidy from federal, state and local taxpayers. (A spokesman for a coalition of groups championing the project, David Cantor, says the UNDC will use tax-exempt bonds for at most a portion of the building.)
The question, however, is why US taxpayers would pay a dime toward this project. At a time when we’re hugely in debt, and the United Nations is busy pushing Palestinian statehood and fêting Iranian nut-job Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, why should we fork over millions of dollars -- and a city park -- to make the United Nations’ dream of nicer, more convenient offices come true?
Proponents of the project say it’s not a done deal, pointing to hurdles beyond the Oct. 10 deadline. But once such projects get rolling, they become almost impossible to resist.
The best bet would be to stop the project now -- before it’s too late.
Meghan Clyne is managing editor of National Affairs.