U.N. headquarters due for first-ever overhaul, with $1 billion price tag

Saturday, July 28, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- The aging United Nations headquarters is set to undergo a $1 billion makeover, the first-ever overhaul of the landmarked but leaking complex overlooking the East River.

The seven-year project will be conducted in three phases, with about 1,000 workers temporarily relocated to buildings in Manhattan and Queens during each phase, said Alicia Barcena, U.N. undersecretary general for management. Work will begin in early 2008.

From 2009 to 2011 the General Assembly will be housed a block away from headquarters on East 46th Street. The U.N. Secretary-General and the National Security Council will remain at the main complex but in temporary space. About 4,000 people work at the U.N. headquarters, which includes three buildings.

"The signing of this agreement is a major step in making the U.N. headquarters a safer, healthier and more energy-efficient place for all of us who work here," Barcena said at a news conference Friday. "It will make it safer for hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit every year."

A Sweden-based construction firm, Skanska AB, won a competitive bid to conduct the pre-construction phase of the project, Barcena said. Skanska will review the current design drawings and provide a guaranteed maximum price to perform the construction before the United Nations makes a decision to award the final construction contract, Barcena said.

"We are currently negotiating with Skanska, and if we agree on pricing, they will probably become the construction management company on the project," said Werner Schmidt, a U.N. spokesman.

Barcena was accompanied at the news conference by Michael Alderstein, who will oversee the entire renovation.

Alderstein, an architect who was appointed executive director of the project this month, managed the renovation of the Taj Mahal, Ellis Island and the New York Botanical Garden.

"It's the United Nations," he said when asked why he would want to head such a daunting project. "It's the most difficult project, in my view, in the world."

The landmark U.N. Secretariat building was built in 1950, based on a design by famous Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. It and its neighboring Conference and General Assembly buildings, built in 1951 and 1952, are packed with toxic asbestos, have leaking roofs and erratic heating and cooling systems and lack fire sprinklers. The sprawling 39-story glass-and-steel complex has not seen a major overhaul since it was built.

The renovation involves a complete makeover, covering six buildings with total floor space of 2.6 million square feet on 17 acres.

One goal of the renovation is to make the buildings more energy efficient. The Secretariat building alone, where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office is located, wastes as much as 25 percent of the heat pumped into it in the winter.

Officials had initially suggested constructing an office building on a playground south of 42nd Street to temporarily house U.N. employees during renovations. That plan, which would have required state and city approval, was abandoned because of a lack of support in the state Legislature.

Skanska Chief Executive Stuart Graham said his company was "extremely honored to partner with the United Nations to help them create a modern and environmentally sound headquarters for its membership and staff."

The company, which has made a strong push into the U.S. construction market in the past few years -- building the open-air stadium for the New York Jets and New York Giants in New Jersey, said the project is its largest ever in the U.S. and one of its top three worldwide.

Skanska spokesman Peter Gimbe said the project was "internationally prestigious," helping the company cement its position both in the tough New York market and worldwide.

"This will be a reference project for us across the globe. The U.N. headquarters is probably one of the most famous buildings in the world," he said.

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