Protection of the Palisades

Testimony by Thomas K. Wright, Executive Director, Regional Plan Association, before the New Jersey Senate Environment and Energy Committee hearing on Senate bill 2025, June 5, 2014

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to share thoughts on Senate Bill 2025. My name is Tom Wright and I’m the Executive Director of Regional Plan Association, an independent non-profit group that plans for the long-range, sustainable development and economic competitiveness of the tri-state metropolitan region. We have offices in New York City, Princeton, N.J., and Stamford, Conn., and a staff of 30 that is comprised of planners, policy experts, architects, designers, historians and researchers. It is with the collective knowledge and strategic thinking of our staff that we deliver this testimony today.  

Given our organization’s 90-year history  and the benefit of hindsight, RPA is able to look back over time and identify planning decisions  both good and bad that have had regional consequences and have endured across generations. 

RPA’s First Regional Plan - released in 1929 – laid out the plans for a new highway and a public transit system that would connect the surrounding region of the suburbs to, and through, the urban core of Manhattan. Robert Moses made the decision to boost the highway system, but not the transit system. Today, we see the result: a region well-connected by roadways but choked with congestion, while the transit systems operate at capacity, with little regional integration. 

RPA’s Third Plan –released in in 1996 - included strong recommendations to protect the New Jersey Highlands region through growth management strategies. In 2004, New Jersey made the decision to pass the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, insuring clean, safe drinking water for millions of New Jersey residents and balanced growth and economic development in communities throughout the Highlands.

These are just a couple of examples that illustrate the importance of decision-making and the impacts across both time and place. 

Today, we are facing a decision of similar magnitude around the Hudson River Palisades. A variance for one building in Englewood Cliffs that would tower above a National Historic and Natural Landmark has triggered a regional debate about the value of open space and the need to protect its aesthetic importance. 

The Palisades are a unique and dramatic defining feature of the region’s natural landscape. In our 1929 regional plan, RPA listed the protection of land on top of the Palisades as “one of the most urgent and important needs in the Region.” As a result of efforts by RPA and many others, Palisades Interstate Park was established. 

The development along the Palisades south of the George Washington Bridge that took place in subsequent decades spurred RPA to dedicate a chapter of its second regional plan in the 1960s to guidelines for buildings built on or around the Palisades, as well as a call for municipal cooperation to further protect lands. Unfortunately, these guidelines haven’t been universally adopted, which means that today we have too many examples of the impact development can have on the scenic beauty of the cliffs. Finally, in 1988, RPA, along with the Trust for Public Land, issued a report encouraging state-level oversight to ensure conservation-based zoning and codes. The bill before the committee today would implement such oversight. RPA’s history with and concern for the Palisades is as old as the organization itself and we stand strongly behind Senate Bill 2025. 

Whether it’s the 1999 decision to limit the height of development around the helix in Weehawken or a regulatory system in Colorado to protect the views of the Rockies, numerous laws, regulations and ordinances across the country have been adopted to protect both scenic and historic viewsheds through height restrictions. What each of these decisions recognized is that local decisions can have regional implications. Applying a 35-foot height limit on buildings in a designated zone of preservation around the Palisades is a smart and balanced approach while respecting an iconic landscape that is shared by the greater region. 

The bill comes at an important time. The efforts to construct a 143-foot tower in Englewood Cliffs threaten to set a precedent of high-rise development in a region where it has been resisted for over a century. At the same time, this bill won’t hamper the future economic development of communities within the preservation zone. Part of what makes these communities such desirable places to live and work is their proximity to the natural feature of the Palisades. Research by RPA and others has demonstrated that real estate around parks and other natural features often has higher value. And – as has been pointed out in the debate over the LG tower – the same square footage of development can be achieved in a building designed with a lower tower.

With support for height restrictions on the LG Tower from four former New Jersey governors, an alliance of nearby mayors, officials from New York including Governor Cuomo and Senator Schumer, parks officials and a coalition of advocates, philanthropists and environmental agencies on both sides of the river, Senate Bill 2025 aims to address a growing regional concern at precisely the right moment. 

So, there is a decision to make. RPA strongly urges the Senate to pass S2025 and lay the groundwork for the continued protection of the Palisades in a balanced way. Let us hope that future generations look back at this time and say “yes, they made the right decision for the Palisades and the region.”

Thank you.