August 12, 2009

50 UN Plaza: The British Aren’t Coming! The British Aren’t Coming!

50 United Nations Plaza

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has backpedaled on their original decision to award a $121 million stimulus-funded contract to renovate San Francisco’s 50 United Nations Plaza to British firm Foster + Partners.

Instead, the San Francisco office of HKS Architects will be overseeing the project and doling out the dollars.

Photovoltaic panels, an ultra-efficient mechanical system, energy efficiency initiatives and environmentally friendly materials are planned to be installed in an effort to achieve LEED Gold certification for the finished building from the U.S. Green Building Council.

As we originally wrote, hell hath no fury as architects scorned.

50 UN Plaza Update: Hell Hath No Fury As Architects Scorned [SocketSite]
UN Plaza Building design work to begin [Examiner]

First Published: August 12, 2009 4:30 PM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

Nice. A form of restraint of trade. WTO in 5...4...3...2...

Posted by: Usually Named at August 12, 2009 5:02 PM

As a cost conscious businessman, the word "architect" always frightens me.

Posted by: unwarrantedinlaw at August 12, 2009 5:03 PM

as an architect, even the name "unwarrantedinlaw" seriously scares me...

businessman?? you've got to be kidding.

Posted by: noearch at August 12, 2009 5:10 PM

Oh no! Say it's not so! Boooooooring and sad, sad, sad.
Instead of an innovative and imaginative solution we are going to be stuck with some ham fisted retrofit.
Chauvinism wins again.
As do political contributions - I'm sure.

Posted by: salarywoman at August 12, 2009 6:56 PM

OK, so they've got a local firm. So anybody want to post a rendering showing what the building will look like with bay windows and a stuccoed exterior?

Posted by: BT at August 12, 2009 6:56 PM


Posted by: BuySellWait? at August 12, 2009 7:32 PM

practicing architecture in SF is difficult - especially when you are dealing with historic buildings. it's a more stringent process that limits the amount of changes one can make to the existing architectural fabric. the SF planning department and historic preservation commission have a huge say in what one can and cannot do.

and don't think the innovation isn't there. it's just often invisible because it's a programmatic requirement to preserve the building aesthetic. it's not just a clean slate where you can just squiggle a few lines and call it a design.

i like foster's work. it's unfortunate that the GSA neg'd on their agreement. but you got to give the local firm a chance to show what they can do before you judge it. you don't have to be a "star-chitect" to design a innovative building.

Posted by: sfarchie at August 12, 2009 8:05 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is a Federal project... and therefore provincial retardation tied to Queen Victoria and Beaux Arts nonsense are not relevant (as with our new Federal Building).

So, therefore, it's simple and ugly protectionism. I am heading to London shortly and will apologize to Sir Norman should I happen to run into him.

It doesn't matter much, however, as whatever building gets erected will be a combo shooting den/public urinal.

Posted by: amused at August 12, 2009 8:17 PM

Just to recap.....

Scenario #1: Feds borrow $121 million that they don't have from the Chinese and turn it over to an SF firm that spends the bulk of those dollars locally rehabbing the building.

Scenario #2: Feds borrow $121 million that they don't have from the Chinese and turn it over to a British firm... that spends the bulk of those dollars locally rehabbing the building.

Under both scenarios, the Feds can't make the capital investment from operating cash flow, the bulk of borrowed dollars are spent locally, and the Chinese continue foolishly to accumulate our public debt for the purpose of mutual stimulation.

This. Does. Not. End. Well.

Posted by: Debtpocalypse at August 12, 2009 8:39 PM

I think Debtpocalypse nailed it...

Posted by: Mark Belanger at August 12, 2009 9:17 PM

Debtpocalypse nailed his thumb and bent the nail. The bulk of the $121 million will go to a local general contractor and their subs to actually build the project. Construction is where the real money is spent.

That kind of cost, had it been solely for the architect and engineering fees would have been appropriate for a project costing many many many times more. Whether the Foster + Partners was the design architect or not, there would have been a local firm hired as the architect of record. Either way, most of the money would have gone to local companies.

...the part about it being borrowed from the chinese, well that was correct for the most part.

Posted by: Dede at August 12, 2009 9:55 PM

Dede must have missed the part where Debtpocalypse said most of money will be spent locally in both scenarios.

Reading is FUN-damental...

Posted by: Mud at August 12, 2009 11:16 PM

Why are they only aiming for gold level LEED, why not platinum? Three other buildings, including the new Academy of Sciences, have achieved that level. Aim high.

Posted by: Oceangoer at August 12, 2009 11:31 PM

Uh... this is an historic building and a rather nice looking one at that. The only thing an architect might be needed for is to design a glass enclosure for the large courtyard. Nothing particularly inventive about that idea.

I suppose the feds might need an architect to run the project and specify the new windows (if they feel the need to replace them). And I guess they could replace all the electrical and plumbing.

Seems like a waste of money and resources to replace perfectly functioning systems just to "go green". (yes, I realize the electrical might be woefully inadequate)

I hope this doesn't turn into another one of those buildings they "save" by gutting.

Posted by: BobN at August 13, 2009 12:29 AM

Per sfgate the design contract was for 7.9 million.

Posted by: Paul E. Ester at August 13, 2009 6:28 AM

Money the government doesn't have? Are you sure?

The GSA is not some radical new spending like our foreign entanglements or entitlements finally blowing up exponentially after all this time. This is a longstanding arm of the government arguably well funded from its own operations that now and then needs more space to handle growth.

Making use of some well located available space without wrecking the existing structure makes sense at a number of levels. Portraying this as some kind of money grab is not just wrong, but completely irresponsible. Are we supposed to save big by pushing the GSA into some other market rate office space instead of letting the Feds use their own property? Is there some proposal for an effective GSA that uses less space?

Posted by: Mole Man at August 13, 2009 8:39 AM

@ Mud: I read just fine thank you.

"Scenario #2: Feds borrow $121 million that they don't have from the Chinese and turn it over to a British firm..."

Under either scenario - the entire budget isn't turned over to an architect or engineer who then contracts with a local GC. Despite Debtpocalypse's caveat, he/she was incorrect. All that is in question is a portion of the budget which is the design contract - and in reality only a portion of that (identified by Paul E. Ester from SFGate above) - because there would always be a locally (US - California) licensed firm involved as the architect and engineer of record. What was really probably in question was somewhere between $1-$3M for design/engineering services had Foster+Partners gotten the job. The rest would have gone to the local for working drawings and construction administration, etc.

Knowledge is FUN-damental. You're welcome.

Posted by: Dede at August 13, 2009 8:43 AM

With apologies to DA in advance for my presumption, but I think he or she questioned whether the money should be spent, not who gets to dole it out.

BTW, to the extent the GSA is "well-funded" is due to the shell game it plays by selling goods and services to gov't agencies and contractors and income collected from same. It is not a self-supporting agency by any means. Most recent GSA budget docs can be found here:

Conceptual thinking is fundamental.

Posted by: anon at August 13, 2009 9:29 AM

Thats one beautiful building. Who ever lands there is one lucky duck!

Although I believe in "Green", I think they should focus more on making it look "right"/updated original than making it Leed Gold Certified.

Posted by: Brendan Aiello at August 13, 2009 9:36 AM

Actually, Foster probably would have delivered a better design in terms of Green/Sustainable. The folks on the other side of the pond are years ahead of US in designing and constructing Green.

The construction industry is seriously hurting and as long as the govt is going to print $121,000,000.00 is say we take it. The shape and color of the box don't matter - just the govt cheese inside

Posted by: OneEyedMan at August 13, 2009 10:03 AM

Hate it say it folks... but "I told you so..."

Click here and search for me Chad.

It looks very likely that they realized that they would get in trouble for mis-using their bail-out money with Feds if they hired a Pom Company from the stupid Queen's Country !

Posted by: Chad at August 13, 2009 10:59 AM

Where's the righteous indignation? They may operate a local office, but HKS is TEXAN!

Posted by: AB at August 13, 2009 11:18 AM


Good point, and many Texans still see/wish Texas as its own country. Forgetting that it used to be...

Posted by: Dede at August 13, 2009 12:27 PM

Hooray for provincial mediocrity!

The only question is why politically juiced Heller-Manus, the most mediocre and provincial of all architectural non-achievers, aren't out in front of this "competitive" contracting.

PS Don't we, like, _invade_ countries that don't open their markets to us as we see fit?

Posted by: Richard at August 13, 2009 9:33 PM

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