Concerned resident addresses property ownership during council meeting

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LINDEN, NJ — Jeff Clarke, a resident of Linden, let his concerns about the direction the city was headed be heard loud and clear at the virtual Linden Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20. All council members, as well as Linden Mayor Derek Armstead, were present.

“This is regarding Resolution 289,” said Clarke during the meeting. “I just have a statement to make. The city of Linden is a very diverse city in many ways. One of them being financially. We have residents that are poor, struggling, average income and people who are comfortable. I’m sure the elected officials know who they represent: the citizens of Linden, not potential citizens. What about the Linden residents? They should come first.”

Due to a council vote on Tuesday, Sept. 15, a large portion of the NJ Transit/QuickChek parking lot on Wood Avenue will be converted into a new apartment complex. This concerned Clarke enough that he directed his comments to the council during the public portion of the meeting.

“The Clarke property, on the corner of North Wood Avenue and West Elizabeth Avenue, offers a QuickChek, a sub shop, a Carvel, a pharmacy, a check cashing, a dollar store, a barber shop, a beauty salon, a Laundromat and, up until recently, a full-size, sit-down restaurant,” Clarke continued. “It offers food and services to all walks of life. This strip mall serves the needs of all Linden residents, even the ones getting on the train or off the train. Centrally located in Linden, it helps the Linden residents to cash a check, get food, medication, take your kids for ice cream, wash your clothes, get a haircut and much more. Why take this away from the residents to put up more condos, when there are so many others being built in the surrounding area?”

In addition to Clarke’s ownership of the property, his long-standing family business, Clarke Engineering Co., also exists at this location. According to Clarke, his father started the air-conditioning, heating-service and installation company in 1951, and he is presently the only family member still running the business.

The property has been in his family for generations; considering this rich history, Clarke wants to retain ownership of it. He disagreed with the previous vote.

“My family has owned that property for almost 100 years. My grandfather, Fred Wood, developed the property in the 1920s. Wood Avenue was named after my great-grandfather. We oppose this resolution to have the property taken away from us, via eminent domain. Thank you for hearing me,” he finished.

When Union County LocalSource contacted the Linden mayor regarding this matter on Monday, Oct. 26, Armstead said only that “We can’t comment on this matter due to condemnation.”

In contrast, 6th Ward Councilman John Francis Roman had much he wanted to say.

“I am for upgrading the property,” Roman told LocalSource on Oct. 26. “However, I think it should be done with Mr. Clarke’s input and not done behind his back. The Clarke family has roots from the earliest settlers of Linden. Honor demands us to help him redevelop the property first rather than try to condemn and devalue his buildings.”

“The lot behind Clarke’s property is owned by Linden,” Roman clarified. “Lots 9 and 10 are owned by NJ Transit.

“I do agree with redeveloping the area, and that should include apartments. However, there is a possibility for overdevelopment. Mayor Armstead has proposed 2,000 units in a two-block radius. In a 2020s post-COVID era, we have no idea if there is going to be a large demand for transit village apartments anymore. We should be monitoring what the future will bring and be the first ones to redevelop the area to what the new economy will need. I personally think it will need sub-office space, like satellite offices for corporations in the city. It’s possible less people will need to go to the city in the future of remote working.”

According to Roman, Russo Development wanted to work on the property but was denied because Armstead already had people in mind for the project. Russo Development then sent a letter to the city of Linden.

“Russo Development was denied, even though they were clearly more qualified,” said Roman. “That’s what the letter Russo Development sent to us was about. It was them being angry about not being chosen.”

Before the council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20, during an interview with LocalSource, Clarke mentioned that he learned of his property being up for grabs through hearsay and wasn’t contacted directly.

“No one contacted us about the interest in the property,” said Clarke on Sunday, Oct. 11. “I had to learn of this decision through hearsay. What they want to do with it is put more apartments in here, and they’ve had over 2,000 made in the last four years and there’s more going up, nonstop apartments everywhere.”

In response to Clarke’s claims of not being contacted about his property being up for grabs beforehand, Roman said he wasn’t aware of this.

“I don’t know if Mr. Clarke was ever asked permission or if he was contacted,” Roman said. “However, if that is indeed true, it does not surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone. At this point, we all know that this is exactly how Mayor Armstead operates. … Originally, I was open to seeing where this project was going to go. I assumed the Clarke family was willing to sell the property.

“With COVID changing the economy and what is needed in terms of transit housing and office space,” Roman continued, “I think Linden would be better served waiting this pandemic out, to see what is needed for the future of transit development.”

Photos Courtesy of Jeff Clarke

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