DEVELOPMENT

Electronic giant's tower project puts historic Hudson River vista at risk

NEW YORK -- A nasty development fight is afoot over protection of views of scenic Hudson River cliffs in historic Palisades Park.

The cliffs in New Jersey along the Hudson's west bank across from upper Manhattan and the Bronx have long been protected by an agreement reached more than a century ago by New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt and New Jersey Gov. Foster Voorhees.

The park itself was established in both states in 1900 to avoid quarrying of the cliffs. At the time, it was hailed as a watershed moment for private-public protection of lands and set the stage for construction of a scenic byway now known as the Palisades Interstate Parkway when the Rockefeller family in 1930 donated key parcels to the project.

The road is still there and is considered one of the more pleasant ways to travel between New York City and the Hudson Valley as far north as West Point, 45 miles north of the city. No tall buildings mar the landscape along the truck-free parkway because of a 35-foot height limit, so the view from the other side of the Hudson, in New York, is fairly pristine.

But LG Electronics -- the South Korea-based manufacturer of televisions, mobile phones and appliances -- wants to construct a corporate tower outside of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., across the river from the city. Activists say the project would destroy more than a hundred years of interstate cooperation related to the park because it would easily exceed 35 feet in height, with some initial designs suggesting it would be 143 feet high.

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LG has insisted it will pursue the sleekest design possible for the glass building, which will serve as its North American headquarters, but the company has not backed down from its plans for the tower during meditation meetings. The company says the building would be barely visible from the parkway, an argument that won approval from Englewood Cliffs officials under the leadership of Mayor Joseph Parisi Jr.

All it took to approve the project was a zoning exemption written into Englewood Cliffs city code that allows for a building sitting on more than 25 acres owned by the developer to exceed local height limits. That exemption has been challenged in New Jersey state court by a handful of environmental groups and has lately captured the attention of a few high-profile opponents.

Earlier this month, four former New Jersey governors -- Christine Todd Whitman, Thomas Kean, Brendan Byrne and James Florio -- penned a letter to LG expressing opposition. Then the U.S. EPA regional administrator put on a rare public display in backing away from a voluntary memorandum of understanding on the project that was meant to help improve its energy efficiency and sustainable design elements.

EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck explained in a letter to LG that her office had never stepped back from such a project before. She then compared the proposed tower to building "an office tower on the rim of the Grand Canyon" and revoked EPA's participation.

"This view is so important that the adverse impacts of construction of high-rise building cannot be condoned," Enck wrote.

Up next was The New York Times, which published an editorial over the weekend demanding that LG craft a new design for its tower. The Times noted the historic agreement between Roosevelt and Voorhees and warned that the "natural beauty" of Palisades Park was in jeopardy. Also opposed is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose Cloisters Museum and Garden in Washington Heights is just across the Hudson from the sheer cliffs.

But Parisi has been just as aggressive in response, arguing that New Yorkers are trying to dictate local policy to New Jersey just to maintain a good view. He has pitched the tower to local unions as a job creator that would be a boon for the local economy, not to mention the tax revenue benefits of a 27-acre major corporate headquarters within city limits.

According to the website NorthJersey.com, Parisi has been drumming up support by claiming that opposition from outside environmental groups has set the project back by more than a year.

"I'm angry because it's not getting done," Parisi told the website. "We need this now."

Many environmentalists are looking for a middle way. Mark Izeman, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York regional program, is holding out hope for an agreement acceptable to all.

Izeman said there's no reason LG has to build that high, out of respect for the century of protection that has preceded the iconic area.

"What's unique about this controversy is everyone wants the building to be built," Izeman said. "But it's rare ... that such a vista has been largely undeveloped for 100 years. Why not protect one of the few remaining urban treasures we have when a sensible alternative exists?"

An attorney on one of the lawsuits, Hayley Carlock at Scenic Hudson, reported that mediation with LG has ended, so it's her group's plan to go to court. She argued that LG could easily get the same square footage it needs on the 27-acre site without hurting the vista.

"This is a national landmark that shouldn't be desecrated," she said, adding that the tower as proposed would be "quite visible" from a number of spots in Manhattan and the Bronx.

When asked if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) might step in, Carlock said she would welcome his involvement. Her group has reached out to the governor without much luck.

"The state has not formally taken a position," she said.

Calls and emails to LG were not returned.

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