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Their Mission: To Grow U.S. Presence at U.N.

‘Security for this facility is of paramount interest. They are threatened regularly. There are some compromises we have to make.’

-Peter Sneed, U.S. General Services Administration

Even as the United States’ clout with the United Nations has shrunk, the size of its mission is growing. Plans have been set in motion to replace the 12-story building that houses the U.S. mission at First Avenue and 45th Street with a 22- story, 141,000-square-foot high-rise.

The new structure will be a slender 400-foot tower designed by Gwathmey, Siegel & Associates Architects, the firm renowned for its 1992 renovation and addition to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and for its sleek 1996 design of the Science, Industry and Business Library at Madison Avenue and 34th Street.

The design will be accented by “smooth, aluminum-clad elements very much consistent with Charles Gwathmey furniture design, china design,” said Tom Levering, one of the firm’s architects, at a public hearing on June 13. The light sandstone-colored concrete will be poured in forms used primarily in high-quality European buildings to create a smooth finish, Mr. Levering told The Observer. A major artwork will be commissioned for the tower’s street-level glass vestibule.

According to Peter Sneed of the U.S. General Services Administration-which manages the mission’s building on behalf of the State Department-the mission staff, as well as its security requirements, have outgrown its current digs. “I’m told that people are working in hallways,” Mr. Sneed said at the legally mandated hearing, which was hosted by Board 6. He went on to describe working conditions in the building as “intolerable.”

The existing 98,000-square-foot building is endowed with a pre-cast concrete sun-screen exterior. It dates back to the late 1950’s-not exactly a peak architectural period, agreed Alan Berman, program director for the eastern branch of the General Services Administration, reached by phone by The Observer.

Board 6 members, of course, had some concerns. One of them-whether the new building will tower over the U.N. Secretariat-was quickly laid to rest: It will not. The Secretariat is closer to 500 feet.

Other concerns related largely to sidewalk obstruction. The existing building already has a police booth on the northeast corner in front of the building. But since it’s small, and set off slightly to the north, it doesn’t block the straight trajectory of a pedestrian heading from either the 45th Street sidewalk or the First Avenue sidewalk into the crosswalk.

For the new building, a larger police booth, to be placed on the corner, is planned. It will be reinforced with a 3-foot aluminum-clad concrete barrier along the curb (meant to prevent potential kamikaze bombers from driving into the Mission). The booth will force pedestrians to loop around to cross the avenue or the street.

The board had already voiced its displeasure at the police booth’s size and placement at its land-use subcommittee meeting last year, when the plans were first presented. Board members suggested widening the sidewalk at the corner to allow the booth clear sight of both sides of the building without blocking the crosswalks. The suggestions were not reflected in the plans presented on June 13. “We’re not impressed with your exploration of alternatives thus far,” said board member John Pettit West III.

Added his fellow board member, “There is no police box in front of the Chinese mission,” though his half-hearted attempt to persuade the presenters that the Chinese perhaps had more to fear on U.S. soil than did Americans didn’t go far.

“I have no comment,” retorted the G.S.A.’s Mr. Sneed, before launching into a laundry list of reasons why, despite good-faith efforts to “accommodate your concerns and desires as much as possible,” those concerns may, in fact, be ignored. “Security for this facility is of paramount interest,” he told the board. “They are threatened regularly. There are some compromises we have to make.”

The proposed new mission does, however, stack up with other missions on at least one front: It will now be among the tallest. Including top height added by mechanical space, it will be just inches shorter than the 23-story German mission. Nigeria’s mission is 21 stories and Russia’s is 19 stories.

Demolition of the existing building is planned for next year, and the new building should be completed sometime in 2005-assuming the U.S. Congress puts up the $45 million to $50 million needed. When asked whether he thinks the funding is likely to come through, given Congress’ antagonistic relationship with the U.N., Mr. Berman was optimistic. “I hope so,” he told The Observer.

-Karina Lahni

Coming to a Site Near You: Do-It-Yourself Government

Offering the latest in public-service technology seems to be the mark of city administrations old and new. During the Koch era, it was the computerized parking-ticket gadget-a hand-held parking-enforcement device that, unfortunately, turned out to be such a fraud that it nearly brought down an entire city government.

Mayor Giuliani has his gadget, too-one, however, that has been field-tested and proven. The CityAccess e-government kiosk is a six-foot free-standing unit that resembles an inflated A.T.M. machine, minus the cash. Officials from the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications claim the kiosk will provide access to all city services via the Web. Tax forms, medical-claim forms, even parking tickets can all be processed at the public kiosks. The aim: greater efficiency at government agencies and greater access for people unable to visit in person.

In 1996, a pilot project called CityAccess was launched to test the usability of this new technology. Kiosks were placed in key spots around the city, including City Hall Park and the lobby of Bellevue Hospital. According to DITT figures, more than 2.7 million users logged on, with only a few cases of reported vandalism.

Last February, the DITT awarded a $1.3 million five-year contract to Golden Screens Interactive Technologies, a Manhattan-based company, to provide city-wide access to e-government kiosks. The city plans to pay Golden Screens for the first year only; after that, the company will rely on advertising placed on the kiosks, said Glenn Gruber, vice president of sales and marketing. The goal is to place 59 kiosks-one in each community board-by the end of the summer.

Finding suitable locations in each of the borough’s community boards is the mission of George Towers, the DITT’s manager of kiosk operations. At the May 22 meeting of Board 3, Lower East Side residents and board members listened to Mr. Towers’ sales pitch on the city’s latest offering.

“We need your help in finding appropriate locations,” said Mr. Towers, who earlier suggested Blockbuster on East Houston Street or Pathmark on Cherry Street as two possible locations.

A few minutes into his spiel, a perplexed-looking Marion Fox, chair of the board’s public-safety and sanitation committee, raised her hand and asked, “Excuse me, but can you tell us what exactly this kiosk is?” Mr. Towers offered a succinct explanation: “You can pay your parking tickets with it, and order flowers on the Web, and watch the latest news reports.” Despite her initial confusion, Ms. Fox later joined the board in approving kiosk placement in Board 3, with the caveat that the city works closely with them.

But do we really need computer hardware in public spaces? According to the DITT’s findings, many city residents do. A significant portion of the city’s eight million residents don’t have Internet access, and a large percentage of those who don’t are from low-income families, states a DITT report. The kiosks, they believe, will effectively bridge the “digital divide.”

Allan Dobrin, the DITT commissioner, said, “This will be a significant improvement in the access to government … achieving one of the core goals of Mayor Giuliani’s administration.”

Sarah Holloway of MOUSE, a Manhattan-based not-for-profit aimed at bringing technology to public schools, agreed that in low-income neighborhoods, access to Internet technology has lagged. Although many neighborhoods across the city have some type of community technology centers, the Internet is still a mystery to some. “It’s a no-brainer way to get people to use the technology,” Mrs. Holloway said. “But they should think long and hard about where they are going to put them.”

According to the market-research firm Frost & Sullivan, the Internet-kiosk industry generated revenues of $33.6 million in 1999. Analysts project that by 2006, that figure will reach $1.38 billion. “They’re born out of the idea of self-service,” Rufus Connell, industry manager with Frost & Sullivan said. “A kiosk never has a bad day.”

Mr. Connell noted that the kiosk market tended to target high-traffic locations, such as airports or train stations. Another growing phenomena is kiosks that include phones. “These may revitalize the slowing pay-phone market due to cellular use.”

A company in Radford, Va., Quad Media, is currently developing an e-voting kiosk-a polling booth for the new millennium. “After the problems in Florida, this could be a viable option for voters in the next election,” Mr. Connell said.

-Shazia Ahmad

June 20: Board 8, New York Blood Center, 310 East 67th Street, between First and Second avenues, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

June 21: Board 9, City College North Academic Center, 138th Street and Convent Avenue, room 202, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200; Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272.

June 26: Board 3, P.S. 20, 166 Essex Street, between Houston and Stanton streets, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300; Board 12, Milstein Hospital-Clark Conference Center, 177 Fort Washington Avenue between 168th and 169th streets, 7 p.m., 568-8500.