“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” wrote the pioneering conservationist John Muir in his 1901 book, Our National Parks. On Tuesday, June 23, the mountains – that is to say, the cliffs of the Palisades – were the focus of good tidings for all of us and for future generations. LG Electronics, the multinational electronics and appliances manufacturer, confirmed it has changed course in its intention to build a new North American headquarters at a height that would have protruded far above the Palisades cliffs and defiled a majestic view. The Korea-based company revealed that it had reached an agreement with a range of parties on a new design for a much lower-level complex.
The news prompted relief and joy among the many people who have cherished the Palisades and who urged LG to not construct a tall tower. It also shows the power such a place holds for many and provokes a fair amount of questions as to LG’s original actions.
LG’s decision and the settlement followed some 11 months of intense discussion and, finally, a consensus of the involved parties, which included Scenic Hudson, the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. Instead of the original design for a tower that would have risen 143 feet above grade – which would have made it the first building prominently visible above the ridgeline along a 20-mile stretch of the Palisades, as Scenic Hudson noted – LG will construct a shorter complex.
It now plans a five-story north wing just shy of 70 feet, plus a three-story south wing. The north building is still higher than the historic 35-foot limit that other companies have honored, but it will not rise above the scenic vista. Under the settlement, the groups dropped their legal appeal of a decision that had cleared the way for LG to exceed the 35-foot threshold.
In announcing the redesigned 360,000-square-foot corporate complex, William Cho, president and CEO of LG Electronics USA, said, “We have found a solution that satisfies LG’s business needs and addresses concerns of our neighbors on both sides of the Hudson.”
LG will construct what it describes as a “world-class, sustainably designed building” that aims to receive LEED Platinum Certification. The company will incorporate lighting, landscape, and other design features to further ameliorate the visual impact and to protect the woodlands and wetlands of its 27-acre site at 111 Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The new corporate complex will allow LG to double its local employment, to more than 1,000 employees by 2019.
Ultimately, LG is doing what is right, but the situation looked dire for a long time. The headquarters was in the works for several years, and LG had received a zoning variance in Englewood Cliffs for the tower. Even after four former New Jersey governors, many citizens’ groups, and individuals pleaded with and put pressure on company executives, LG stood fast. Some 30 environmental, civic, and cultural groups formed a coalition, Protect the Palisades. In response, LG maintained that a redesign would be too costly.
A natural landscape is a living organism, and it can elevate our senses, moods, our very being, and our connection to the Earth. The Palisades cliffs possess this power, and the setting is all the more remarkable for lying in the midst of one of the world’s most populated, congested metropolitan areas. Still, as precious as this vista is and has been for generations, LG’s intentions put the Palisades perilously close to being altered in drastic ways. Imagine once LG broke this height threshold how many others would follow.
We form deep bonds with such landscapes, as their shapes and beauty become etched within our minds, hearts, and memories. One dear friend, fearing that LG would not relent in transforming forever a view that she had loved on her train rides along the Hudson River for years, spoke of how consequential and tragic a loss this would be. The marring of a pristine place with such a tower seemed unconscionable and yet, in a society crazed with carving out and paving over in the interests of corporate power and our consumption of consumer goods, quite possible. The prevention of a tower marring the view of the river cliffs, therefore, was far from assured and didn’t happen in a vacuum. This victory occurred because some people didn’t give up the fight.
Those who worked to stop the LG tower spoke of the priceless quality of this view and of saving it for future generations.
Credit: Protect the Palisades
This rendering showed how a tall tower would have spoiled the natural view. Imagine other towers following on the ridgetop.
Credit: Protect the Palisades
Beyond the bond we form with landscapes is a bond across generations to honor and save what is precious. LG changed course only after a persistent effort by various groups and individuals. The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs was among those instrumental at the turn of the 20th century in getting the governors of New Jersey and New York to form a commission and protect the Palisades from being ravaged by quarrying and other commercial activities. Over a century later, it stood strong in this campaign.
One high-profile activist sought to save what his ancestor had first been instrumental in preserving. Larry Rockefeller, an environmental lawyer whose grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated the hundreds of acres that became the Palisades Interstate Park, joined in the effort. At one point, he flew to Seoul to try to convince LG officials to back down. In his view, a century of conservation was at stake. This is the bond between generations, and now goes forward to the new generations that will enjoy and treasure the Palisades, a designated National Natural Landmark. When the settlement was reached, Rockefeller praised LG for its willingness to listen.
LG provided this welcome answer finally, but the entire episode leaves questions. Why did the company design a tower this tall in the first place? Surely, someone had to have known or done some homework to understand that other companies have honored this height threshold, preserving the view, for many years. Instead, LG unveiled this design, and then held to its position steadfastly for quite a while. The company stirred much strong opposition and dismay, and many signed petitions and urged boycotts of its products. (I had decided I would never buy an LG product again.) LG fashioned a textbook case of how to sully its standing and damage its brand.
Still, the change in its direction shows that LG became open to compromise because it needed to move ahead and not stay mired in a standoff. The key was to find a way to cooperate. “By partnering in this win-win settlement that preserves the majesty of the Palisades while meeting its business needs, LG has demonstrated its commitment to cooperating with stakeholders to protect the environment,” said Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, in the joint announcement of the settlement. “The beauty of the Palisades will now continue to be a source of inspiration for generations to come.”
The environment isn’t a special interest; it’s in everyone’s interest. Legally, of course, LG may well have defeated the opposition if it stuck to its original design. It became up to others to speak up, be relentless, and press the case for a cherished natural landscape that cannot speak for itself. Perhaps this can be a cautionary tale for other companies that disregard the natural environment.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Muir, Linnie Marsh Wolfe wrote of Muir’s stance on our place in nature: “Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.”
No doubt that some corporations are more mindful of this balance these days, but would that many more heeded Muir’s timeless wisdom, as LG is finally opting to do in this situation.
To read prior coverage of LG Electronics’ original plans, the controversy, and how citizens could help stop the tower, also see on Mindfulwalker.com: