UN Renovation and Construction: Issues for Congressional Oversight?

Brett Schaefer /

The United Nations is in the midst of a $1.87 billion renovation project. Few argue that the U.N. building isn’t in vital need of an overhaul – it is falling apart at the seams and New York schools no longer allow students to visit the U.N. building because of its failure (perhaps inability is a better word) to comply with city safety standards.

While the need for a renovation of the U.N. headquarters is clear, there are outstanding questions about the estimated costs and implementation of the plan. For instance, there are numerous stories of wasteful or unnecessary renovations.

All of this should spark interest in Congress because U.S. taxpayers are footing 22 percent of the costs.

Congress has held several hearings discussing whether the estimated costs for the U.N. renovation reflected a lowest cost option. The last full scale hearing on the U.N. reconstruction project was in 2005. At that hearing, Donald Trump estimated he could complete the project for $700 million – roughly half the U.N.’s original estimate of $1.2 billion and a quarter of the $3 billion price tag based on projections at the time of the hearing.

The 2005 hearing was a long time ago. It’s past time for Congress to get an update on how the project is going and, most importantly, to determine if the project is proceeding with more oversight than is typical at the U.N. which has proven very susceptible to fraud on procurement. Indeed, the U.N.’s own auditors are concerned about the about the total cost of the project, the possible inaccuracy in the project calculations, the uncertainties in the schedule of the project, and the weaknesses in procurement and contract management.

While they are at it, Congress should look skeptically into a revived proposal to build a brand new U.N. building on parkland adjacent to the U.N. headquarters. Currently, the U.N. pays rent to the city of New York for office space in two nearby buildings on 1st Avenue for $25 dollars a square foot. This is substantially below market rates, so the motivation for the City of New York to free up the space so it can rent it for higher amounts is clear.

Less clear is the motivation for why Congress should support putting U.S. taxpayers on the hook to pay for 22 percent of the cost of building a new U.N. annex gift wrapped for permanent U.N. ownership in a lease-to-own scheme.

And what about the desire of the local New Yorkers who have opposed the plan from the beginning because they would lose their local playground?

While it may seem parochial, the issue seems ripe for consideration by Members of Congress from New York and those representing the other 300 million Americans who will be asked to pay for it.