By Clyde HabermanNew York Times
February 25, 2005
In case you have just emerged from a cryonics experiment, the chatter this week was all about the 2012 Olympics and City Hall's hunger for a stadium on what has come to be known as the Far West Side. But across town, on what might be called the Far East Side, another real estate squabble is in progress. It may not be the blood sport that the struggle over the stadium has become. But it involves the United Nations, and that is good enough for some New York politicians who insist on conducting their own foreign policy.
At issue is the United Nations headquarters building, more than half a century old and in sorry shape. Some even consider it unsafe. Good, you can hear diplomat-hating New Yorkers muttering, let the place crumble. But for all its failings, the United Nations is not about to disappear. Another reality is that it is important to New York, try though its detractors may to pooh-pooh the point. The city's Economic Development Corporation says the organization generates 18,000 jobs and boosts the local economy by $2.5 billion a year. There is also a more intangible quality. "It is largely because of the United Nations' presence that we refer to New York City as the 'Capital of the World,' " a senior city official wrote in 1995 on the organization's 50th anniversary. That was Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, never known for wantonly hugging the striped-pants set.
Not surprisingly, the city and state want to help the United Nations repair itself. So do the White House and Congress, neither of them a likely place to find adoring portraits of Secretary General Kofi Annan. A deal that they all worked out provides for a $1.2 billion federal loan to get the headquarters in shape. But first, a new 35-story building would be constructed across 42nd Street, on a splatter of asphalt at First Avenue called Robert Moses Playground. This would be financed through roughly $700 million in bonds to be sold by a joint city-state agency, the United Nations Development Corporation. Rent from the United Nations would pay off the bonds.
Thousands of headquarters employees would move into the new building while the old one is repaired. Once the work is done, back they will go. The new building would then be used to gather under one roof United Nations workers now scattered around Manhattan. Many are in city-owned spaces that, once emptied, could be put on the market. "This is a win-win situation" for the city and the United Nations, said Roy M. Goodman, the former state senator who is president of the United Nations Development Corporation.
Not so fast. Remember, this is New York, where uncomplicated real estate deals are rare. The Moses Playground may not look like much, but it is a slice of open space for some East Siders, especially teams that use it for roller hockey. The local community board, No. 6, is not yet convinced that its interests are best served by new, vaster park space that the United Nations pledges to build along the river. A bigger obstacle is Albany. (What are the odds?) The Legislature must give its blessing to the playground arrangement, but the State Senate, taking the lead, has said no.
Enter foreign policy. Some lawmakers cannot pass up this opportunity to vent longstanding, not to mention widely shared, unhappiness with the United Nations. They have denounced it as anti-American, anti-Israel and corrupt, as evidenced by the charges swirling around the oil-for-food program. Then there is Old Reliable for New York politicians: parking summonses and diplomats' reputation for not paying them. In fact, the city's Finance Department says that the deadbeat rate has been reduced virtually to zero. That reality, however, has not stopped the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, from citing parking tickets as proof that the United Nations cannot be trusted to pay its debts. Never mind that the city says the organization has never missed a rent payment.
Now the United Nations says it has begun looking for alternatives to the playground, just in case. But Mr. Goodman says he remains optimistic that the project can still be salvaged. "This is so important to New York," he said. It is not lost on city officials that as rewarding as it may be for some people to stick a finger in the collective United Nations eye, the big losers would be the many New York construction workers who could see good-paying jobs float away.
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