As most people know, the United Nations headquarters rests on a prime slice of New York City real estate along the East River, stretching from East 42nd to East 48th Streets on First Avenue. The UN agreed to adopt the site as its home as a second-best option in 1946, after acquiring a suburban campus either in Westchester County or in Greenwich, Conn., proved unfeasible.
More than 60 years after the UN opened at the Manhattan site, the world body and the City of New York remain distant but cooperative neighbors, while UN operations bring in an approximately $1.6 billion in revenue to the city’s economy annually, based on inflation-adjusted figures from the 1980s, the last time the city tracked such numbers, at least publicly. Now, a city greenway project has brought the UN closer to New York’s sphere of influence as talk of the UN in the mayoral primary race has been virtually nonexistent.
Although the UN is considered outside the territory of the United States through a treaty agreement, in some criminal matters it has submitted to federal jurisdiction. Its interaction with the local government occurs most intensely in September, when the General Assembly convenes its annual general debate and hundreds of diplomats and delegates descend on the UN campus in the Turtle Bay neighborhood. This year, the session runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 2.
“The contemporary relationship between the UN and New York City has had its ups and downs,” Stephen Schlesinger said in an interview with PassBlue. He is an adjunct fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the author of “Act of Creation: The Foundation of the United Nations.”
Marjorie Tiven, the sister of the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been responsible for dealing with the UN as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs (formerly called the Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol), since 2002.
Because of the UN’s relative geographical remoteness, on the far east of Midtown, New Yorkers don’t tend to spend too much time there, whereas tourists flock to the UN tours. The UN is also a more inward looking institution, said Ulysses Smith, the chairman of the UN committee for the New York City Bar Association, which monitors the UN’s presence and produces reports and open letters on international human rights, legal and city issues. “There is not a lot of active outreach happening with the city,” he said.
The last time Mayor Bloomberg appeared at the UN was in October 2012 to talk about his foundation’s philanthropic support for maternal health in Tanzania. This year, the mayor weighed in on the post-2015 development agenda, and his foundation financed a World Health Organization report on road safety. Bloomberg has spoken on other issues at the UN, like the environment and noncommunicable diseases.
Bloomberg’s green city initiative is indirectly involved with UN headquarters. While the UN debates its options for expanding in New York, its reputation for cautious negotiations are evident in its role in the city’s plans for mending a 20-block gap in the 32-mile Manhattan Greenway Project. The greenway stretches almost the entire loop of Manhattan, but breaks between East 38th and 60th Streets on the East Side.
Tied into the project is a direct element that could help finance the greenway: a new building to be constructed to house various UN offices now scattered throughout east Midtown.
A New York State public-benefit entity, the United Nations Development Corporation, which was created in 1968 to help the UN with its real estate needs, has commissioned the design of an approximately 35-story office building for the UN to be constructed in a portion of Robert Moses Playground, just south of 42ndStreet on First Avenue. The UN would consolidate some of its staff around Midtown to the new building.
The agreement, hatched in 2011, also calls for UN Plaza 1 and 2 buildings, located on East 43rd Street near First Avenue and leased by the UN but owned by New York City, to be sold or refinanced in 2018 at the earliest. Part of the proceeds will finance the greenway. (Legally, the agreement requires a minimum amount of $300 million to be raised from the sale or refinancing, said Robert Cole, the counsel representing the UN Development Corporation.) Among the corporation’s board members is Tiven.
The UN Development Corporation built UN Plaza 1 and 2 through bonds, while Unicef, housed in UN Plaza 3, which came into being through a similar arrangement, is expected to acquire its building when its lease from the city expires in 2026.
The deal to erect an office building in Robert Moses Playground could be considerably profitable, Cole said, giving the city enough money to not only complete the greenway but also to enhance other parks, such as Asser Levy on East 23rd Street, he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon endorsed the plan and released a report on the potential project. The UN’s budget office, called the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, known as ACABQ, however, has requested more information from Ban, like data supporting the project’s economics. It has also asked for numbers on alternative plans, including continuing to rent the scattered office spaces in Midtown or erecting a building on the North Lawn of the UN headquarters.
The Fifth Committee of the General Assembly, also tasked with budget issues at the UN, concurred with ACABQ, so Ban’s office will submit a new report in January, Cole said and confirmed by the UN. It will be vetted by the Fifth Committee again in March or April 2014.
“It’s the UN’s move,” said Dan Garodnick, a New York City Council member who represents the Turtle Bay neighborhood, describing the greenway as a “win-win” for the city and the UN.
As negotiations continue, New Yorkers may be interested to know about a UN perk that is another “win-win,” at least for diplomats: use of the parking garage below the UN headquarters. The garage has about 700 spots, which diplomats can partake of — with a permit — free during the day, said a UN spokesman. They must pay a nominal fee from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., thus making 24-hour parking attractive.
More than a decade ago, a parking-ticket scandal induced much scorn against the UN from New Yorkers. Foreign diplomats who work at the UN are entitled to two legal parking spaces on the street, but they overspilled those spaces in large numbers and accumulated more than 150,000 unpaid parking tickets from November 1997 through 2002, totaling more than $18 million in fines. The diplomats’ immunity enabled them to skirt the fines.
Interestingly, however, two economists from New York City and Berkeley, Calif., produced a study in 2006 analyzing the overdue fines, finding that diplomats from high-corruption countries, such as Bulgaria, Chad and Egypt, had many more parking violations than diplomats from countries with low prevalence of corruption, like Canada and Norway. But it also found that the frequency of violations by foreign diplomats increases with their tenure in New York City, regardless of their home country’s record on corruption.
The parking situation changed substantially after 2002, when the city gained the right to tow vehicles with diplomatic plates from illegal parking spaces and to revoke the official parking permits. In addition, 110 percent of the total amount due had to be paid from any aid from the US government to the offending diplomats’ countries.
As a result, the number of summonses issued has been reduced and the majority of the 4,000 or so of such parking tickets written annually by the city get paid. The debt that had accrued of more than a decade ago has also been paid, Smith of the New York Bar Association said, having discussed the matter with Tiven in January 2013. Smith, however, said that his notes from his meeting with Tiven showed that she said that $6 million in accrued debts had been paid, not $18 million. Requests to Tiven’s office for clarification went unanswered.
Smith met with Tiven as part of his research for a report released in May 2013 on policy recommendations for New York City’s next mayor, to be elected in November. The report studied the UN’s contributions to the city’s economy in 2012, based on figures from 1988, suggesting ways to revitalize a welcoming program for new diplomats and their families. The last financial analysis on the UN was released in 1989.
That year, New York City found that the total net benefit of the UN and its diplomatic community to the city was $830,799,000. The New York City Bar Association applied an inflation factor of 94.1 percent to the 1988 figure to calculate the estimated $1.6 billion intake from the diplomatic community in 2012.
The 1988 number reflects costs and lost revenue from certain taxes that the UN does not have to pay to the city (including real estate exemptions), uncollected towing fees, uncollected parking fines, extraordinary police protection and the expense of educating diplomats’ children, Smith said. It also leaves out expenses accrued by the dozens of nongovernmental organizations based in the city that work on matters related to the UN.
The figure does include costs paid by the United States mission to the UN and the US consulate; the UN’s budgeted expenses to New York of $352 million; and other expenses paid by UN related programs and agencies.
“We asked [Tiven] why the city hasn’t done this analysis since 1989 because it seems like it would be relevant, and her reaction was along the lines of, ‘We basically understand that of course the UN brings in a lot of revenue to the city and economic benefit, and in a way it is not necessary to study it,’ ” Smith told PassBlue in a phone interview.
Smith also bemoaned the notable lack of discussion that New York City mayoral candidates in the primary have been showing toward the UN.
“The UN is a significant institution in the city — for multiple reasons,” Smith said. “But since its members don’t vote in mayoral elections, candidates may not have to pay attention to them. But we should focus more on what the UN is doing.”
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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She reports mostly on UN headquarters news when she is not working abroad. In the last several years, she has reported from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. Lieberman is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. For more information, go to www.amydlieberman.com