NEW YORK – Donning blue U.N. hard hats and carrying shovels, officials broke ground Monday on the $1.9 billion renovation project to revamp the organizations' world headquarters in New York City, which some critics warn may cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and 16 other senior U.N. officials and diplomats used shovels to turn over dirt, marking the start of the project.
"Today we turn the soil which the U.N. stands on to mark the rebirth or renovation of our headquarters," Ban told those gathered for the ceremony on the North Lawn.
Built nearly 60 years ago, the U.N. complex is badly in need of repairs. The original structure was designed for 70 member-states — a figure that has nearly tripled over the years. The glass-and-steel headquarters, worn down by decades of wear and tear and plagued by leaks, asbestos and faulty wiring, now violates New York City safety and fire codes.
The first phase of the project will include the construction of a temporary conference building, aimed at making the U.N. complex safer and more modern. The building will house offices until the restoration of the nearly U.N. skyscraper is completed in five years.
The repair costs is budgeted at around 1.9 billion dollars, to be paid by member nations based on their percentage of annual dues.
For example, China will contribute $39 million, Russia $21 million and Iran will contribute less than $3 million. The U.S. — which funds about a quarter of the U.N.’s budget — will contribute $400 million — more than any other country.
But U.N. critics worry it will be much more.
Niles Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said the renovations could cost American taxpayers millions of dollars in overspending.
“The United Nations is incapable of running a high school musical effectively and efficiently; there is no reason to suggest that the U.N. is able to run a large-scale renovation project of this kind on budget and on time," Gardiner said.
Congress has already expressed concern about the project, especially in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal, the humanitarian aid program to trade oil for money that was subverted by Saddam Hussein's government to prop up his regime.
Confidence in the project was further shaken after real estate developer Donald Trump testified the renovation was certain to cost more than its initial budget. Trump suggested it would be better to just abandon its current location and relocate to new offices.
But during Monday's ceremony Patrick Kennedy, Under Secretary of State for Management, praised the planned renovation while emphasizing the need for proper management.
“We appreciate secretary general Ban’s efforts to convey timely information to member-states on the progress of renovation, keeping key stakeholders abreast of developments and minimize the concerns that naturally arise in a project such as this," said Kennedy.
He noted that the new complex "will see a 40 percent increase in overall energy performance and reduce water consumption, generating savings and significant resources for all."
The renovations come as the U.N. tries to combat what it calls a "silent tsunami of food shortages in the developing world". Critics say that while headquarters is badly in need of repair, they ask if that cause is worth the cost.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.