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On July 24, Autobarn owner Richard Fisher and Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey held a press conference in an abandoned lot behind the Target store on Howard Street. If all goes as planned, Mr. Fisher will purchase the 6.3-acre parcel; renovate the building; add landscape, lighting and security and use the property to store new and pre-owned vehicles for his three dealerships on Chicago Avenue.
Autobarn sells new and pre-owned Volkswagen, Mazda and Nissan automobiles from its showrooms on either side of Chicago Avenue – on the west side, south of Greenleaf Street and, on the east side just north of Lee Street. The company also stores vehicles on a lot on Emerson Street, a lot in Skokie and one in Chicago.
“The driver of this [proposed purchase] is that we’ve experienced a fair amount of volume growth in the past year,” Mr. Fisher said, thus, “we have caused a lot of trouble on Chicago Avenue. The delivery and preparation of cars for display in the showrooms or the lot has clogged traffic. It’s like trying to force 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag,” he said.
Purchasing the property would allow Autobarn to use the Chicago Avenue locations primarily for sales and service and use the Hartrey Avenue property for its human resources personnel, file storage, a showroom for pre-owned vehicles and a storage place for new vehicles. He said they would have about 550 new vehicles outside and, inside, 300-400 pre-owned vehicles ready for delivery. The building would be rehabbed, not razed.
“It is a cool, well-built, great building – not one that anyone should think of tearing down,” said Mr. Fisher. He added, “This [project] means a great deal to me.”
Ald. Rainey appeared to echo the sentiment. “This to me was the dream I had all along for the property. The Council preserved the I2 zoning because we knew we would be able to secure a permitted use [for the property].” She said this project comports with the City’s economic development goals of retaining and enhancing current businesses and attracting new ones.
The Neighbors Think …
A handful of neighbors attended the press conference, walking to the site from their neighborhood that adjoins the shopping plaza site but is separated by a wall.
Judy Fradin asked whether glare from the lighting could be mitigated in any way. Mr. Fisher said they plan to use “a new kind of low-energy, high-efficiency lot lighting” that has “more focused lighting” and that, he thought would not affect the neighbors.
Alison West asked about the access road to the property. “Where will the employees enter from?”
“That way,” replied Mr. Fisher, pointing west to the Kedzie Avenue access, on the opposite side of the property from the neighborhood. “It’s not any harder to have employees to do this and to keep you happy,” he added.
Asking the City for …
The Autobarn is seeking financial help from the City in three different ways:
• expansion of the Southwest II (Howard-Hartrey) tax-increment financing, or TIF district and $4 million in TIF funding to help offset the estimated nearly $5 million in purchase and rehab costs;
• support in its application to the Cook County Assessor to have the property reclassified as a “7B”; and
• a 10-year sales-tax-revenue-sharing agreement.
Expansion of the Howard-Hartrey TIF, created in 1992, would be only a physical extension of the borders, not an extension of its 23-year life span. The TIF includes most of the shopping plaza there, and Autobarn seeks to have the 222 Hartrey property – its proposed purchase but not the Vineyard property, which adjoins it – added to the TIF. This would allow the City to use the requested $4 million in TIF funds for the proposed project.
According to the Cook County Assessor, the 7B classification allows a 12-year reduction in real-estate taxes under certain circumstances: a reduction of 10 percent of fair market value for the first ten years, 15 percent for the 11th year, and 20 percent for the 12th year.
The date of the reassessment would be either the date that “new construction or substantial rehabilitation is completed and initially assessed, or, in the case of abandoned property, from the date of substantial reoccupation.”
The 222 Hartrey property has not been occupied since Shure Brothers left in 2002. Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School, located in Rogers Park, had planned to purchase the property but the City did not grant a change in zoning that would have enabled Joan Dachs to operate a school on the property. The school sued the City, and the City prevailed at the trial level. Although the school said it would appeal, if Autobarn succeeds in purchasing the property, parts of the lawsuit may be rendered moot.
A sales-tax-sharing agreement is another way the City aids businesses. Whereas in a TIF district the incremental property tax – the difference between the tax on the property when it went into the TIF and the tax on the property as improved – remains in the TIF for certain projects, a sales-tax-sharing agreement allows the City to keep a certain portion of the sales tax revenue generated by a business and remit the remainder to the business that generated the revenue.
The City and Autobarn had a 10-year agreement, which ends in a few weeks, for sharing up to $1.3 million. Under that agreement, 2003 – the initial date of the agreement – was the “base” tax year, and the City remitted to Autobarn on a quarterly basis one-half of the sales-tax increment generated during that quarter.
Autobarn’s request is for a 10-year agreement with an uncapped amount, using 2003 as the base year.
Mr. Fisher said Autobarn has been “the number-one sales-tax generator – except one year when Home Depot displaced us.”
Autobarn Around Town
Autobarn’s General Manager Richard Kirkpatrick says he “loves working in the community. We have become very involved in the Chamber of Commerce and we have hired kids from Evanston Township High School.” He said Autobarn cross-promotes “the joys of visiting Evanston as well as doing business in Evanston.”
Some local examples, he said, are a presence at the downtown farmers’ market with “eco-friendly” cars, the gifts to the City of a vehicle for mobile 311 help and to the police department of a vehicle for use at ETHS, and the free loan of a bicycle to customers who come to the shop for repairs.
The company also invites people “globally” to visit Evanston with a link to the City’s website, said Mr. Kirkpatrick.
In February, the Autobarn received the 2012 Arts & Business Committee Leadership Award for, among other things, its sponsorship of the annual Young Evanston Artists festival.
The Economic Development Committee was to have considered the proposal on July 24 but, no quorum being present, the meeting was rescheduled for Aug. 7. City Council has the ultimate authority to approve, reject or modify the request.