With little attention from national media or Congress, the pieces are falling into place for the United Nations to build a brand-new building next door to its current 39-story tower. That’s fast work, considering the U.N. has yet to provide the Obama administration or Congress an official cost estimate for the project or a detailed justification of the need for this building.
Thus far, the action has been concentrated in New York. Earlier this summer, both houses of the state legislature approved a bill authorizing New York City to “sell, lease or otherwise transfer such land and interests therein to the United Nations development corporation” as are needed for the construction of a new office building on the Robert Moses Playground just south of the current U.N. building. Governor Cuomo signed the legislation on July 15. The legislation stipulates that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) must be completed and signed by the mayor of New York City, the temporary president of the senate, and the speaker of the assembly by October 10, or the legislative authorization will expire.
New York politicians and the U.N. have been working to overcome resistance from some local residents who strongly oppose the deal. In fact, the U.N. Foundation has hired a public-relations firm, Berlin Rosen, to gin up local support for the project. David Cantor of Berlin Rosen is the spokesman for the Friends of the East River Greenway, a “grassroots” group specifically created to advocate the project.
New York state-assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the three individuals who must sign off on the MOU, and state senator Liz Krueger, who represents the 26th New York Senate district, where the Robert Moses Playground is located, are also represented by Berlin Rosen.
Once the MOU is complete, New York will enter into formal negotiations with the U.N. to sell the playground. Local politicians have presented the project as a financial windfall for the city. The New York Times quotes state senator Liz Kreuger as saying, “It is a very rare occasion where I would ever find myself supporting the alienation of open space in my district. But we think mathematically this is a win. It helps New York City make good on its commitment to a green ring around Manhattan. We’re in bad economic times. I just don’t see any money appearing on the horizon for something like this.”
Indeed, New York expects to make $200 million to $400 million from the deal. Much of that would be used to fill in the largest remaining gap in the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, from 38th to 60th Streets on the East River. The greenway is considered a legacy project by Mayor Bloomberg.
Woohoo — free money from the United Nations, right? Not exactly. Remember, the U.S. taxpayer pays 22 percent of the U.N. budget.
Earlier this decade, construction of a new U.N. building was estimated to run about $400 million. And New York wants $65 million for the playground property. Add those two figures for a lowball estimate. The cost could go much higher, however. After all, the current renovation of the U.N. building was initially estimated at $600 million. It’s now expected to wind up costing more than $2 billion.
The U.S. taxpayer will likely be expected to shoulder 22 percent of the increased expenses resulting from the new U.N. building. This works out to just over $100 million under the lowball estimate, but could easily be three or even four times that amount. And it should surprise no one if we’re also asked to assume sole fiscal responsibility for security upgrades related to the new building. After all, as we saw in 2010, the U.S. was expected to pay for $100 million in security-related expenses — above and beyond our regular “fair share” contribution for the renovation project.
What New York is really proposing, then, is for American taxpayers from around the country to pay hundreds of millions of dollars so that Manhattan’s bikers and hikers can have a scenic pathway along the East River. If the citizens of New York won’t pony up for their own esplanade, why should taxpayers in Ohio or Nevada or Florida or anywhere else? This may be a “win” for New York and the U.N., but it certainly makes the rest of America look like a loser.
Thus far, the Obama administration has stayed mute on this issue. It should speak up and oppose this project before things progress too far and the American taxpayer is stuck with another extravagant bill. In a time of fiscal austerity, neither the administration nor Congress should silently assent to this unnecessary increase in America’s contributions to the U.N.
— Brett D. Schaefer is the Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.