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U.S. officials: Aside from traffic woes, UN benefits NYC

Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building.

Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building. Credit: AP, 2007

The General Assembly, the annual gathering of world leaders that reminds New Yorkers that they host the United Nations, has a well-known downside: an uptick in traffic jams in a city known for intolerable congestion.

With the two-week General Assembly set to begin this week, UN officials are reminding residents that its presence has tangible positive effects, including major boosts to the local economy and New York's stature as a world-class city.

"We realize that the next two weeks are going to cause a lot of inconvenience for New Yorkers," said Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, an Austrian national who serves as UN undersecretary-general for communications and public information.

But Launsky-Tieffenthal stressed the benefits of having the UN in New York year-round. The roughly 10,000 people who work for the UN, he said, help make the city and Long Island -- where the UN used to have a home in Lake Success from 1946 to 1951 -- better places to live.

"They themselves are New Yorkers," he said, adding that UN employees participated in efforts to clean up the Rockaways after superstorm Sandy.

The UN's International School, with campuses in Manhattan and Queens, serves not only diplomats' families but also local children, Launsky-Tieffenthal said, calling the institution perhaps the most visible collaboration between the UN and New York City.

A New York City Bar Association committee has encouraged the city to take greater advantage of the UN's powerful presence.

"The United Nations and the diplomatic community play an important role in the life, economy and image of New York City, even though by definition they do not take part in the local political discourse nor do they represent a voting bloc," the committee said in a study published this year.

According to the study, the UN's economic impact on the city exceeds $1 billion a year, and the East River campus draws up to a million visitors. Those visitors patronize a long list of businesses, from restaurants and hotels to department stores and theaters.

"Given the year-round meetings, permanent employment rosters, interim meeting attendees, space leases and purchases of goods and services, and attendant hotel- and tourism-related expenditures, the diplomatic community is an economic engine and a very significant sector of the city's economy," the study stated.

The United States covers 22 percent of the UN's annual budget, with other nations making contributions based on economic strength.

Every dollar the city invests in the UN, by providing fire and police protection and other services, generates an estimated $1.50 in return as the UN hires local firms for various jobs and its staffers and visitors shop in the city, Launsky-Tieffenthal said.

In addition, the UN, under its capital master plan, has been upgrading its headquarters for several years, pumping billions more into the local economy, he said.

As for the vast, international UN workforce, Launsky-Teiffenthal said most consider themselves New Yorkers.

"They go shopping, they go to a ballgame, they take their kids to schools, they go and watch a movie, so they fully identify," he said. "They relate to the city and to this area, and live it and breathe it."

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