by Bill Batson
When my niece hears the word “Palisades,” she thinks of shopping at the local mall that has appropriated the name. But in recent news coverage, the Palisades in question constitutes an imperiled natural landmark according to conservationists.
In February 2012, the Zoning Board of Adjustment in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey approved a variance sought by LG Electronics USA, to build a new headquarters. The ruling allows the corporation to construct a 493, 000 square foot complex on a 27-acre tract atop the Palisades Cliffs. The LG complex would include a 143-foot structure that would tower over the trees and dominate the iconic ridgeline.
How to Protect the Palisades
If you are ready to make an Earth Day pledge to protect The Palisades, here are some steps that you can take right away:
Sunday, April 27th
Lower the LG Tower Bicycling Event
25 mile ride starts from Fort Lee via Hudson Terrace, past site of new LG high-rise office building, on to 9W north to Palisades, NY for rest stop at The Market.
All riders will be required to wear a bicycle helmet; sign a waiver; supply emergency contact before beginning ride; no riders under 16 years and those between 16-18 years must be accompanied by an adult who will sign the waiver for them. All riders should be aware that their name and email address will be shared with the Protect the Palisades.org campaign to have LGE lower the height of their building. Sponsored by NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, Bicycling Touring Club of NJ, and Bike NY.
April 30, 7:30p
Englewood Cliffs Planning Board hearing
The public is urged to attend the meeting that will be held at Englewood Cliffs Upper School, 143 Charlotte Place, Englewood Cliffs. This hearing will solicit comments on a master plan change that will allow building heights to soar to 150 feet in the designated commercial zone.
Sunday, May 4, 9a
Protect the Palisades 6K Trail Run/Walk, Ross Dock, Fort Lee, NJ
All proceeds from the 6K Trail Run/Walk will help support the protection of the Palisades from overdevelopment, including the LG tower. Register here:
To learn more visit Protect the Palisades.
A vigorous opposition to the development has been gaining momentum. Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Coalition to Preserve the Palisades Cliffs, and the Sierra Club New Jersey Chapter filed amicus briefs on April 4, 2014 that seek to invalidate a zoning change that allows building heights of up to 150 feet in the business zone adjacent to the Palisades.
Another suit filed in opposition to the original zoning variance, argues the planning board’s action constituted a rezoning of the LG property. The approved 143-foot height is four times higher than the 35 foot limit that is currently allowed by law.
On March 20, the Historical Society of the Nyacks passed a resolution in support of the campaign to save the Palisades. Jennifer Rothschild, the Historical Society trustee who authored the resolution, has been an active participant in efforts to reduce the scale of the development. “The Palisades are a national resource and treasure. Their fate should not be controlled by one municipality,” Rothschild said. Rockland County Legislator Harriet Cornell won adoption of a similar resolution this month by the Rockland County legislature.
The history of the Palisades is a geo-political tale told on two time lines, a geological one measured in millennia and a political one measured in decades. When you travel over the George Washington Bridge and look west, you have a sweeping un-obstructed view of a magnificent monument to the origins of our continent.
During the Triassic Period, 30 million years ago, semi-molten igneous rock was forced upward through a fissure in the earth’s crust to form giant vertical crystals of diabase lava. The 300 – 500 foot cliffs resemble the rim of the Grand Canyon or the edge of an escarpment, affording us a rare opportunity to ponder the inner workings of the planet whose surface we inhabit.
This vista, which was the timeless companion of Native Americans, alerted the first European settlers to the granduer of the land they came to conquer. Generations later, the Palisades were celebrated by a group of artists called the Hudson River School.
The public’s interest in preserving the Palisades was apparent to one of our nation’s earliest and most vigorous naturalists, Theodore Roosevelt. As governor of New York and in partnership with New Jersey Governor Foster Voorhees, a Palisades Park Commission was created in 1900 to prevent the rock face from being reduced to rubble by mining operations in the late 18th century.
It was the demolition of a feature called Indian Head in 1898 that galvanized a citizen movement, that included the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs, to stop the quarry operations and save the cliffs. The Federation continues their role as custodian of the Palisades and as an active opponent to the LG tower.
In 1930, the land on top of the Palisades, extending north 13 miles to the New York State border, was acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Of that parcel, 2500 acres were donated to the Palisades Park. The Palisades Interstate Park Commission was established in 1937 with five commissioners to be appointed by the governor of each state. The Palisades Interstate Parkway was opened in 1958 and is owned and operated by the Interstate Park Commission. The road is called a “parkway” because, with the exception of rest areas and gas stations, there is a prohibition against commercial development along the route.
Opponents to the LG plan are not questioning the right of the corporation to build on their land that is adjacent to the Palisades Interstate Park. The fear is that if the tradition that kept development below 35 feet is broken, there will be a skyscraper stampede. Counter proposals suggest that a 65 foot tower would not violate the century-long truce between public and private use of the Palisades, by keeping the building below the treeline.
The impact of overdevelopment is not just an aesthetic, but also an existential concern. On May 12, 2012, an avalanche demonstrated the fragile nature of the Palisades Cliffs. Those who live around Hook Mountain can attest to the dynamic nature of rocks when they are assembled vertically.
The shaking produced by the collapse of the 500-foot rock face was strong enough to be registered by a seismic station a mile and a half away at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO).
“The rocks fell on a shoreline trail called Giant Stairs, a massive boulder field created by several thousand years of accumulated rock slides.” According to LDEO’s State of the Planet blog. Eric Nelsen, an educator at Palisades Interstate Park, said the rock fall was “the biggest I have seen in my 20 years with the park service.”
On January 7, 2014, Kristina M. Heister, National Park Service Chief of Natural Resources for the Northeast Region, reached out to the Englewood Cliffs Planning Board in opposition to the project. “Given the size of the property in question it seems entirely possible for the development to achieve its needs and conform to the borough’s existing zoning regulations. We believe it is in the best interest to do so in order to protect this outstanding example of our nation’s natural history and the public interest.” Heister also noted that the “Palisades are both a National Historic Landmark (NHL) and a National Natural Landmark, a rare dual designation.”
The Palisades Cliffs, a national and regional treasure, already have two strikes against them: gravity and erosion. Unfettered development on the edges of this fragile natural landmark might just be strike three.
Aerial photo courtesy Protect the Palisades