NYC suspends school visits to UN

September 10, 2008 5:55:37 PM PDT
After decades of getting firsthand glimpses of the United Nations, public school students may have to settle for model-U.N. debates this year. The nation's largest school system said this week it was halting trips to the landmark complex over concerns about fire hazards, though the U.N. insists the buildings are safe.

With that, thousands of schoolchildren find themselves entangled in the latest spat between the worldly city and its diplomatic corps, which have tussled for years over parking tickets and property taxes.

"We feel that it's very unfortunate that children in this area - in the host city, in our neighborhood - can't come visit," U.N. spokeswoman Soung-ah Choi said Wednesday.

The city's decision affects only local public school pupils, who account for many of the roughly 50,000 students who tour the U.N.'s midtown Manhattan headquarters each year. The U.N. draws about 500,000 visitors of all ages annually.

The dispute comes as the city seeks more say on fire safety in buildings owned by governmental agencies now exempt from city regulations and inspections. Two firefighters died in an August 2008 blaze in a government-owned ground zero skyscraper that was rife with safety violations.

So was the U.N.'s headquarters when it allowed city inspections in 2006 and early 2007, according to a letter Monday from Marjorie B. Tiven, the city's U.N. liaison and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sister. Tiven said inspectors counted 866 violations in the complex, which dates to 1951 and is just beginning its first major overhaul.

The inspectors called for new sprinklers, smoke detectors, exit signs and fire doors, among other things. Tiven said many problems have been fixed but the world body had failed to install fire doors in some areas of the 39-story Secretariat building and corridors underneath the complex.

"Given that they haven't competed these critical safety projects, we're not comfortable sending schoolchildren on tours," Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post said Wednesday.

Tiven said fire officials had recommended canceling all tours, a suggestion the U.N. has rebuffed.

The U.N.'s experts have declared the complex safe, Choi said, adding that the U.N. had changed tour routes and spent $3 million to meet the city's demands. Any remaining issues will be mooted by a $1.9 billion makeover that began in May, she said.

The work is expected to take until 2013. It entails shifting roughly 5,000 employees from the Secretariat tower to other locations, including a temporary building under construction on the complex's lawn.

The complex, which is along the East River, was designed by an international team, including the renowned Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. About 39 million people have visited since tours began in 1952.

While the U.N. has been a mainstay of some school tour schedules, the city teachers' union said it supported the city's move.

"We always have to put kids' safety first," United Federation of Teachers spokesman Ron Davis said.

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