National Treasure For Sale
The New Jersey Palisades are a unique geologic formation along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River across from New York City. Sheer basalt cliffs that rise between 300 and 550 feet above the river, they stretch for nearly 20 miles. In 1983, the Palisades were listed as a National Natural Landmark, a designation that includes iconic places like Mount Shasta in California and Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. The natural beauty and the ecological value of the Palisades are protected by an interstate park that was created cooperatively by New York and New Jersey in 1900 pursuant to an agreement between the governor of New Jersey and the governor of New York-Theodore Roosevelt. Protection of the Palisades was visionary and a gift to future generations from people who understood the value of protecting a resource from degradation.
The Palisades Interstate Park was created to protect the cliffs from quarrying operations. Now the Palisades face a different threat. LG Electronics-the “Life is Good” people who manufacture cell phones and flat screen T.V.s wants to put its new North American headquarters in a 143 foot high office campus in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The project will undoubtedly bring jobs and economic investment to New Jersey (as well as significant property tax revenue to Englewood Cliffs). The problem is that this proposed building will rise above the tree line and intrude upon the vista that has been protected since the creation of the park and acknowledged as a valuable resource with the designation of the Palisades as a National Landmark. The magnitude of the intrusion into a scenic view is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. The import of enabling a governing ethic that embraces squandering protected resources in exchange for questionable short-term gains is not debatable. It is a dangerous and ominous precedent.
Answering The Wrong Questions
There is a great scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny is discussing with his girlfriend just what he should wear to go deer hunting. The answer was both priceless and obvious as well as extremely relevant to answering the questions surrounding LG’s proposal. The people in Englewood Cliff are busy discussing how high the new LG headquarters should be or how it should be designed. The correct answer is, who cares! It does not belong there. The arguments over how this building should look or how high it should be are seriously misplaced. It highlights how the battle for local tax revenue leads local officials to become deranged. Instead of asking the basic question-is this the right place for this building-the conversation centers on rationalization and justification to find a way to accommodate a project that was ill-conceived from the start. Most alarmingly, this debate is over how to convey benefits to a small group of people at the expense of compromising something of acknowledged national significance.
It seems to me that the General has his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be-Abraham Lincoln
There are real questions that need to be asked here. Are there no alternatives? Is the tax revenue to one town more valuable than the integrity of a national landmark? Has anyone involved in the project heard the news that suburban office campuses are a dying non-sustainable model of development? Do we have the political will to insist that economic development take place in an environmentally sustainable manner? Are we capable of viewing investment and development in a more regional fashion and end the destructive competition between communities? Why bring these jobs to a site that is not served by mass transit? Isn’t there a better way to meet LG’s needs, provide jobs and encourage investment in New Jersey without the environmental destruction?
The answer to the last question is easy. While the effort to pound a square peg into a round hole goes on in Englewood Cliffs, 18 miles away Newark, the state’s largest city, sits looking for economic investment. The City has all of the necessary infrastructure in place to support a large corporate headquarters. Its located at the hub of a network of highways. Newark is served by commuter and regional railroads, an international airport, an international seaport and is home to the acclaimed New Jersey Institute of Technology. NJIT’s high-tech campus attracts students and research professors from all over the world. Midtown Manhattan is a 15 minute train ride away. These are all assets that a technology company like LG just might be interested in. They could build their building however high they need it to be-without the need to compromise a national landmark. Yet, for whatever reason, locating this building in a far more appropriate place has never entered the conversation. Municipal and state officials are doing contortions to find a way to enable construction of a new building with absolutely no access to mass transit and that will duplicate countless existing empty corporate campuses that dot (or plague) the suburban landscape. Instead the debate centers on just how much the new headquarters will affect a national treasure. It’s an insane conversation driven by municipal finances. It’s hard to understand why.
If I Ask You To Jump….
Towns will sell their souls for the short buck. Englewood Cliffs is willing to hand the keys to the city to LG to keep them in town along with their tax revenues. They are willing to make a decision that will impact millions of people, affect multiple generations and unravel over a century of conservation policy to protect their parochial interests. Faced with push back, the mayor of Englewood Cliffs stated, “Time is of the essence! I fear if a fair compromise is not reached, LG will leave the state.” This line of reasoning would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive and ridiculous. LG will no doubt complain that the state is unfriendly to business and cite the obstacles to their plans-as if an ill-planned poorly located project was not itself an obstacle-as evidence of a hostile regulatory scheme. Never mind that there are perfectly reasonable and preferable alternatives that would meet their needs. Corporations have only one goal-maximizing their profits-and if they can co-opt a community into assisting with that effort; all the better. Meanwhile local governments will continue to perform tricks in an effort to out compete their neighbors and to please corporations with their promises of dubious rewards.
Protection of the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive goals. Jobs and economic growth are laudable and necessary aims. However, they do not trump protecting the environment. Finding ways to accommodate and enable investment in a manner, and in places, that minimize environmental impact and encourage sustainable outcomes is achievable. The saga of LG and Englewood Cliffs has a great deal of significance that goes beyond just this incident. Hydraulic fracturing, offshore oil drilling, and real estate deals all over the country pit the public interest against the quests of private and corporate interests to garner benefits, concessions and incentives on a daily basis. The ability of corporations to manipulate outcomes because local officials are susceptible to spurious arguments of economic gain and a reliance on the old rateable chase continues to lead us down an unsustainable path. Maybe it won’t be all that obvious today, but when the time comes that LG cuts a better deal somewhere else and the people of Englewood Cliffs are stuck with an empty office building in a bad location, it might just sink in.
So to the folks fighting the LG project-keep it up! If the mayor is talking compromise and LG is threatening to go elsewhere you must be making some headway. The issues in play here are important beyond Englewood Cliffs or the Palisades. Somewhere there’s a town offering a tax break or a state waiving an environmental regulation for a Super Wal-Mart at the highway exit or a new football stadium for a team that’s threatening to leave town. Somewhere somebody is willing to trade public trust assets for short-term gain. Every time it happens public officials need to be called out. Your efforts might stop the LG project, but more importantly, they might serve as an example to people elsewhere that the fight is worthwhile. Somewhere along the line this way of doing business has to stop and right now is as good a time as any. – Ben Spinelli