Fred A. Bernstein

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Move the United Nations to Ground Zero

The Freedom Tower could become a true symbol of freedom

Published in The New York Times, April 24, 2005

THE Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site is supposed to begin rising next year - and so far not a single tenant has signed on. At the same time, the United Nations desperately needs new office space in Manhattan.

Last fall, the State Senate voted against the United Nations' plan to build an office tower at First Avenue and 42nd Street. The plan was not only impractical, but also unimaginative. Instead, the United Nations should establish a foothold - physically and symbolically - at the site of the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

Clearly, the United Nations needs more space. It outgrew its iconic tower decades ago. Operations have spilled over into half a dozen buildings in Midtown. Consolidation would bring efficiency and savings and would help keep the organization in New York.

At the same time, the existing glass-walled headquarters, built in 1952, is in dire need of renovation. Leaky roofs, inadequate air-conditioning and the presence of asbestos, which has prevented stop-gap renovations, have made working there a nightmare for employees.

But before the United Nations can begin renovating, it needs some place to move thousands of employees.

In the late 1990's, it began making plans for a new tower on Robert Moses Playground on First Avenue, immediately south of its existing building. The idea was that workers would move there while the old Secretariat building was being renovated; when that project was complete, employees in far-flung offices would move to the new building.

Designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the 35-story building would cost hundreds of millions of dollars (guaranteed by American taxpayers), would take at least three years to build and would eliminate a much-used recreation area in a largely residential section of Manhattan.

But with that plan on hold, at least for now, the United Nations needs to come up with another solution.

At the same time, 7 World Trade Center, with 1.7 million square feet of office space, is nearing completion. And the Freedom Tower, which will have 2.6 million square feet of office space, is supposed to be finished later this decade. When Larry Silverstein, the World Trade Center leaseholder, won a major court victory against his insurance companies last fall, the building's financing was assured.

So far, neither 7 World Trade Center nor the Freedom Tower has a single tenant (with the possible exception of Mr. Silverstein's own office).

And neither building is likely to find a tenant anytime soon. The downtown office market is weak. And what company would want to rent space at ground zero? The site will always be a tourist-clogged curiosity, and - sadly - a potential terrorist target.

Why would an employer move there, when so much other office space is going begging? But with the United Nations as the lead tenant, representatives of 191 countries would have a stake in the future of ground zero.

Alas, the United Nations' approach to its own space needs has been bland and bureaucratic. Reportedly, it has insisted on the 42nd Street site for reasons of security and convenience.

But the building - over the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and surrounded by ramps for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive - would be difficult to secure. At the same time, any building at ground zero will have state-of-the-art security.

As to convenience, sure, United Nations' employees would prefer not to have to travel between the East Forties and Lower Manhattan. But shuttle buses to the inspiring new ground zero transportation hub could make the trip a pleasure.

By taking space at ground zero, the United Nations would solve its space problem, practically overnight. But more than that, it would capture the public's imagination.

The Freedom Tower could, in a way no one predicted, become a true symbol of freedom.