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Conservative Think Tank Wants Congress to Weigh in on UN Land Swap

By Mary Johnson | September 29, 2011 6:22pm

TURTLE BAY — The debate over a proposed UN land swap deal in which the city would sell a parcel to the UN in order to help finance a waterfront esplanade has involved all levels of New York City politics, from impassioned residents to elected officials.

Now, as the Oct. 10th deadline to agree to the terms of the deal looms, a fellow at a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank is adding his voice to the mix — arguing that the federal government should be the final arbiter in the plan.

In a report from the Heritage Foundation published earlier this month, author Brett Schaefer argued that the construction of a new UN tower has significant implications for the rest of the nation beyond New York City, where the debate has been largely concentrated.

“The government of New York is proceeding along with this project … without really making the U.S. government aware of what the potential financial obligations might be,” Schaefer told DNAinfo.com Wednesday.

“[C]onstructing a second UN building would likely have significant financial implications for the U.S. federal government, which pays 22 percent of the UN regular budget and would likely shoulder increased payments to the UN in future years resulting from costs associated with the project,” he wrote in the report, which was published on the Heritage Foundation website on Sept. 12.

“As far as I can tell, no one’s really estimated how much this is going to cost. This is the main issue,” he told DNAinfo.com. “To me, the matter of the park or the disposition of the park or the East River Greenway or the bike paths or the development of the area isn’t my main concern.”

Schaefer, who frequently writes about the UN, said he decided to investigate the land swap because of the potential costs associated with building a new UN office tower.

He also warned that the project may be an unnecessary expense to bear during tough economic times.

“Thus far, the negotiation has occurred with little public scrutiny or transparency,” he wrote, “and minimal explanation has been provided either as to why this project is necessary or as to whether it makes financial sense for the U.S. government.”

For the elected officials in New York City, the negotiations thus far have not involved issues of financing, apart from determining how the funds raised from the sale of Robert Moses Playground and of two UN-leased but city-owned buildings could pay for a waterfront esplanade from East 38th Street to East 60th Street.

“We view the memorandum of understanding with the city, which may or may not be agreed to by the 10th, as completely separate from how the UNDC and the UN decide to finance all of this,” a spokeswoman from State Senator Liz Krueger’s office said in a statement.

The spokeswoman also said that the United Nations or the UNDC could reject the deal, even after the terms of the MOU are agreed upon.

David Cantor, a spokesman for Friends of the East River Greenway, an organization set up to support the plan, said advocates are trying to set up the best possible outcome for the area, should the deal move forward.

“If this whole land deal actually happens, how can we ensure that the city and the neighborhood maximally benefit?” Cantor said. “We’re trying to create the conditions that are going to enable that to happen.”

The financial aspect of the deal beyond this first stage is complicated, he added. “[But] those questions are beyond the scope of what we’re doing here,” he said.

“The MOU is the first gateway, and it’s an important one," Cantor added. "But there’s many more to come.”

Those opposed to the land swap, however, have embraced Schaefer’s article and his arguments for increased federal involvement either by Congress or the Obama administration.

While the U.S. would not have the power to stop the deal, Congress would have to weigh in if the UN wanted to issue tax-free bonds for the deal, sources said.

Vivienne Gilbert, president of the Windsor Owners Corporation at 5 Tudor City Place and a staunch opponent of the deal, thought the report raised serious and important questions that have thus far been ignored.

“This particular aspect of it, I think, has been very cleverly swept under the rug,” said Gilbert.

Gilbert referenced Schaefer’s points about the high costs that could accompany a new UN tower and said those concerns, coupled with the loss of a park and the potential security risks, make the deal especially objectionable.

“It’s a tremendous expense, and it’s a tremendous toll for a very beautiful thing,” she said.

“We’re doing the very best we can to maintain our opposition, and I would really love to be able to bring it quickly enough up to the federal level because I feel it should be there,” she added. “At the local level, I think we have very little chance.”