UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Officials in blue U.N. hard hats broke ground on Monday for a temporary building at the United Nations, launching a $1.9 billion renovation project to make U.N. headquarters safer, more comfortable and greener.
The three-story structure to be built on the U.N.'s north lawn beside New York's East River will house conference rooms and the U.N. General Assembly until restoration of the nearly 60-year-old U.N. skyscraper is completed in five years.
The distinctive blue-tinted glass and steel 40-story building housing the U.N. secretariat, which was designed by French architect Le Corbusier and Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer, has been increasingly showing its age.
It has water dripping through its roof, toxic asbestos lining its ceiling tiles, no sprinklers in case of fire and erratic heating and cooling systems, leading to friction with New York City authorities.
New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the latest manager to head the much-delayed project, told reporters the aim was to leave the building's exterior looking the same as it does now.
"However, it will be a greener, more sustainable building, it will be a much safer builder and it will be modern," said Adlerstein, who previously worked to renovate buildings ranging from New York's Statue of Liberty to India's Taj Mahal.
From the end of this year, most of some 4,700 staff will be moved either into the temporary structure or into rented premises in Manhattan. The Security Council, however, is slated to continue functioning in the existing complex.
Speaking at the ground-breaking, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the work would bring "considerable inconvenience" to employees.
Ban and 16 other senior U.N. officials and diplomats then donned hard hats and used shovels to turn over dirt, marking a symbolic start to the project.
The project has been much criticized for delays. Planning started in 1995 and has been through several managers including Adlerstein's predecessor and fellow American, Louis Frederick Reuter, who quit after 10 months in what he called frustration at working within the U.N. system.
Cost estimates have also spiraled. Last October, Ban decided to speed up the project to keep it within a budget approved by the General Assembly of $1.877 billion.
Construction manager for the project is Skanska Building USA, a unit of Swedish construction group Skanska.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman