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High above the Hudson, a battle over development

Thursday - 6/27/2013, 7:06am  ET

In this photograph taken Friday, June 21, 2013, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., a pedestrian walks by an empty parking lot near a building on Sylvan Avenue. The electronics giant LG is planning to build a gleaming new headquarters here. One of the biggest opponents is New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contends the building will ruin the view of the Palisades, a line of steep cliffs along the Hudson River, that is visible from the Cloisters. The museum is joined by numerous environmental groups and local citizens who say the building will be an eyesore on one of the country's most beautiful spaces. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

KATIE ZEZIMA
Associated Press

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. (AP) -- It's one of the most beautiful, and surprising, views from New York City -- sheer cliffs rising about 330 feet from the western banks of the broad Hudson River and lushly blanketed by emerald foliage, nature's unexpected counterpoint to the steel skyscrapers and glass towers that crowd the shores of Manhattan and northern New Jersey.

Now, in an area preoccupied by real estate, development and views, this vista has sparked the latest skirmish over construction, conservation and job creation.

A collection of stakeholders including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, conservation groups, the Manhattan and Bronx borough presidents and former New Jersey governors object to the design of a new headquarters for LG Electronics USA above the cliffs, called the Palisades.

One part of the proposed building would pierce the tree line of the Palisades Interstate Park, a 12-mile-long National Historic Landmark along the shores of the Hudson. The company received a height variance from the town to build the 143-foot building. Development along the Palisades is normally limited to 35 feet.

LG's headquarters will stand across from the Cloisters museum and garden, which is nestled into a hilltop high above the eastern side of the river and is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan. Industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated land for the Cloisters and purchased 700 acres of cliffs on the other side of the Hudson in the 1930s to keep the view pristine.

Looking west from the Cloisters on a sparkling summer day, one feels transported far from Manhattan. But while breathtaking, the view is not entirely pristine. Apartment towers and a crane rise about a mile south near the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, and closer to Englewood Cliffs, a stone apartment building rises out of the trees along with another, smaller building.

Opponents say they're not opposed to LG building a new headquarters on a 37-acre parcel that sits about a quarter-mile behind the Palisades in Englewood Cliffs. They just want it to be squat and below the tree line.

"It's rare in such a densely populated area to have protected for more than 100 years such an unspoiled viewscape and natural resource," said Mark Izeman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the development.

In a rare reversal, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew from an agreement it entered into with LG regarding the Englewood Cliffs development. In a letter, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck said the impact of the building on the beauty of the Palisades and the height variance was not made clear. She requested the building's height be lowered.

"This is not a step I take lightly," Enck wrote this month. "However, this viewshed is so important that the adverse impacts of construction of high-rise building cannot be condoned."

In a response, Wayne Park, president and CEO of South Korea-based LG, said the company is exploring design alternatives.

It's one of many salvos in a back-and-forth between the two sides that has lasted for months.

In 2012, conservation groups and residents filed two lawsuits over the project. One claimed the company was given an improper variance and accused the town of spot zoning. The other asserted the project would ruin the preservation efforts. The cases were consolidated and are before a judge.

Court-supervised mediation between the groups aimed at finding a compromise broke down two weeks ago.

LG ran a full-page ad in New Jersey newspapers June 23, proclaiming the "truth about LG's new HQ project," opposition to which has been "orchestrated by New York-based groups with no interest in the wider economic well-being of New Jersey."

The building will be a huge source of tax revenue to Englewood Cliffs, said Joseph Parisi Jr., mayor of the town about 12 miles northwest of midtown Manhattan that is also home to CNBC and Unilever USA. Nearly 94 percent of residents own homes, and the average income is $116,000. LG did not receive a tax incentive to build here, Parisi said.

The LG building is expected to create about 1,000 construction jobs, and 1,000 to 1,200 employees are expected to work at the new headquarters; about 500 people work at the current headquarters complex in Englewood Cliffs.

Hayley Carlock, an attorney at Scenic Hudson, said the conservation group believes that New Jersey and LG should build the headquarters, just lower than planned.

"We're concerned the LG building will stick out like a sore thumb and set a precedent," she said. "LG did it, so why can't we do it?"

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