Linden unveils plan to transform ‘blighted’ area

A two-block long area on St. George Avenue in Linden and bordering Roselle. The city, in conjunction with numerous partners, recently unveiled plans to revamp the entire area and spur a revival with the creation of a Social Justice Center to hold courtrooms, police headquarters and more.
A two-block long area on St. George Avenue in Linden and bordering Roselle. The city, in conjunction with numerous partners, recently unveiled plans to revamp the entire area and spur a revival with the creation of a Social Justice Center to hold courtrooms, police headquarters and more.

LINDEN – Last week the city unveiled a vision they have for a two-block area bordering St. George Avenue that could transform a blighted and economically depressed section of the city into a $16.4 million Social Justice Complex shared with Roselle.

The project’s cost is expected to top $24.7 million, but because of potential partnerships with entities such as Trinitas Regional Medical Center, Union County Division of Emergency Management, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the cost was able to be pared down to $16.5 million.

Linden and Roselle have been working cooperatively for many months on the planning of this 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot complex and have established a partnership that in the end, they said, will bring mutually beneficial shared services and other needed facilities for both municipal court systems and offices of emergency management.

Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka and Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley, along with a New Jersey Department of Community Affairs project team, presented the plan at a public hearing held at Linden Multipurpose Center, located in the heart of this 3.25-acre area declared an area of redevelopment in 2003.

Helping to bring this vision to life were students from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, School of Architecture, who spent an entire semester working on several innovative designs for this proposed complex.

Gerbounka said he came up with the idea after inheriting the blighted area when he became mayor. Left to contend with this white elephant, he spent many days and nights trying to come up with ways to utilize this acreage that would vastly improve the neighborhood while bolstering the business district bordering heavily traveled St. George Avenue.

However, while the road to successful revitalization was often paved with false promises and dead ends, when Gerbounka came up with the concept of a social justice complex it seemed like a perfect fit for Linden, Roselle and residents living in the neighborhood.
Both mayors strongly believe partnering and bringing in other entities to also participate will enable Linden and Roselle to have an active stake in trying to tie together the deteriorating fabric of the area.

Another positive with these two towns partnering is that they are following the state’s best practices, which Trenton has been encouraging for several years.
Another reason for partnering with Roselle, Gerbounka said, was logistical because the center of St. George Avenue just happens to be the dividing line between the two municipalities.

Asking Holley to join in on this venture was a given, the mayor explained.

Figuring significantly into the equation was public safety issues including the fact that Linden’s current police and municipal court systems are in improvised facilities that would require costly upgrades to meet current security and operational standards.

Yet another public safety issue is that while Linden and Roselle have well run, fully equipped offices of emergency management and have continued over the years to provide one another with mutual aid assistance, these two municipalities are in dire need of additional space and updated facilities for this critical service.

How to find the space and money, though, has kept both from moving forward – until now.
According to Gerbounka, because social justice complexes seek to reconnect the justice process with the communities they serve, while also bringing revitalization to the area, this is the perfect fit for this rundown area.

The mayor also pointed out that there were several successful examples of social justice complexes, including New Haven Community Court in Connecticut and Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. Both, he added, were put in similar blighted areas and proved to be more than successful in turning things around.

Gerbounka believes a complex like this being built in a blighted area will not only restore the community and bridge the gap between the community and courts, but also provide job counseling, child care, urgent care, social service information and family support services, all under one roof.

More importantly, design principles are expected to provide a secure police presence in a neighborhood that is now frequented by drug dealers, create a responsive and resilient emergency response and emergency management center for the region, all the while building bridges between the courts, police and neighborhood.

Gerbounka also said the presence of a public safety complex will provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for employees, clients and the public. Officials are also counting on this type of development creating a public space that will attract private sector investment in the surrounding area, which has not been achievable for decades.

The proposed justice facility breaks down to the Linden police department taking 25,000-square feet of the space, shared municipal court and indoor and outdoor OEM operations for both Linden and Roselle using 22,000-square feet, and the remainder of the footage going for family assistance, urgent care, job training and supporting medical uses.

Although this is a huge undertaking, the mayor said bringing in the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs helped move things along tremendously. However, Gerbounka warned this is still in the conceptual stage and if it comes to fruition, it could be three to five years before the vision is realized. One huge stumbling block is coming up with the financing for this $16.5 million project.

After crunching all the numbers, Roselle’s contribution to the project for use of the court and OEM building, including parking, would be $3.2 million, while Linden’s share come to considerably more at $13.2 million because they will be using more of the facility for relocation of the police department.

Obtaining the financing for this project, though, will require both municipalities to bond money.
The vision to transform the area located in an economically depressed minority business neighborhood bordered by residential dwellings began back in 2003 when the city and developer Morningstar LLC began working together in a public-private partnership.

Morningstar agreed to develop the area as a mixed use retail-commercial development once Linden acquired the buildings from private owners through eminent domain.
Although it looked like things were moving in the right direction when the city managed to acquire 11 buildings for $5 million and borrow another $1 million for demolition costs, Morningstar ran into financial problems of their own and could not keep their obligation.

“The problem is that Morningstar was required to pick up any expenses over $5 million,” the mayor told Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable in a letter dated Jan. 23, 2013, explaining that although the city tried time and again to help this developer find financing, all efforts failed.

Shortly thereafter the two parted company and the court gave the city the right to find a new developer.
Meanwhile, the land has sat vacant because few developers wanted to invest money during trying economic times, Gerbounka said. The mayor felt something had to be done, though, and the concept of a social justice complex seemed to be the perfect fit.

“This would immediately benefit our city by having a state-of-the-art police station, dispatch service and court complex that would free up much needed space in city hall that is presently occupied by the police department,” the mayor said, adding the city could then shut down a building built in 1910 which houses the recreation department, centralizing services and reducing costs.

Gerbounka said the complex like this would immediately increase property values in the neighborhood and encourage private investment, not only in the redevelopment area but also other vacant properties along the ten block stretch of east St. George Avenue.

“With a 135-man police department and radio cars constantly going to and from headquarters to their assigned sectors, a high police visibility would improve the neighborhood,” Gerbounka said, adding “add to this a courtroom with attorney’s coming and going and a dispatch center both of which would increase pedestrian traffic and businesses coming to the area to service people’s needs.”
However, Gerbounka and Holley are tempering excitement and looking at this proposed project realistically.

“This is not a done deal by any means,” the mayor told about 50 residents attending the community informational meeting last week, but he strongly believes the justice complex is the answer to the city and the neighborhood.

“We believe a public-private project like this will ignite a spark that creates an explosion along St. George Avenue,” Gerbounka said, adding “this is a team effort.”

“It’s going to happen. It’s just going to take time,” he assured residents, pointing out that everyone “just has to roll up their sleeves.”
As for the financing, the mayor said he was aware that was “a hurdle because this is going to cost us.”
Holley was just as fired up about the prospect of the justice complex.

“The mere idea of this vision, it’s a perfect partnering for Linden and Roselle,” he said, adding “there is no reason both communities shouldn’t be working together. This is a perfect fit.”

Gerbounka assured residents that “this is just a vision” and the need for input was important.”
“We’re going to need more input, thoughts and ideas from our communities,” he said, but mentioned that residents in either municipality should not be concerned that they will shoulder the entire burden of this project because “a portion will be picked up by Trenton.”

The next step is for the Linden Planning Board to review this redevelopment plan and send a recommendation to the city council for adoption by ordinance, as required by state law. That is the first step in many that must take place before this project can get out of the gate.

Included down the road is selecting a responsible party to oversee the development of the social justice complex, and developing and advertising a request for proposals from the bond counsel so formal general revenue bonds can be issued for the project.
After that the city has to find architectural and engineering firms to design the complex and develop a budget for the entire project.