Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Kane McKenna, the City’s longtime Tax Increment Financing (TIF) consultant, identified 283 parcels in the firm’s preliminary study on the feasibility of creating an additional TIF in West Evanston area.

The proposed TIF District would include the present Civic Center (top right, outlined in red) and extend north along Green Bay Road to include some parcels there. Map from City of Evanston materials

Some residents as well as a few candidates in Evanston’s primary election questioned the inclusion of one of the parcels — 2100 Ridge Ave., where the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, the City’s longtime home of government, currently sits.

Evanston City Council members approved a $61,000 contract with Kane McKenna at their Feb. 8 Council meeting, despite urging from some that they wait until the next Council comes on board before making any decisions on the issue.

Addressing the Council during the citizen comment portion of the meeting, mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls told aldermen, “The idea of selling the Civic Center before an election, or even proposing this idea is quite frankly, absurd.

“We’ve yet to receive any community input and the selling of the Civic Center should take place after a referendum, and should not be pushed through with expediency.”

Lori Keenan, another candidate in the mayoral race, said she thought it “irresponsible” for the Council to be making the decision at this time.

“I think when you’re talking about trying to make it [the TIF area] feasible to a developer, you should be having the community’s best interest at heart, and we shouldn’t be trying to guarantee a profit to the developers “ she said. “I know that right now there is an email out from our City Manager to other organizations to try to partner with them in order to abandon the Civic Center and that has not been [an item of] public discussion.”

City Council members backed last year a staff recommendation to vacate the City’s longtime Civic Center home, moving City operations to a downtown location.

The decision, in the midst of the pandemic, came with little public feedback.

However, in the mayoral campaign, all three candidates have raised reservations about the decision, including the third candidate, Daniel Biss, who while not making a commitment to the current building, called for more study on the issue and its alternatives.

In a memo to the Council on the issue before the meeting, Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Coordinator, said “inclusion of the Civic Center property is critical to creating significant impact for the performance of this proposed TIF district. 

“The property is currently tax-exempt,” he wrote, “and with recent discussion of the sale of City-owned property and the relocation of the City’s administrative operation out of 2100 Ridge to downtown Evanston, its sale to a private tax-paying entity, would create significant increment to help fund affordable housing and infrastructure improvements in the balance of the TIF study area,” he wrote. “Further study in the next phase will help determine the level of increment expected from the property.”

In a TIF district, the tax increment – the difference between the property tax revenues on the parcel as it went into the TIF and as improved – remain within the TIF to be used for public projects, such as infrastructure.

The life of a TIF district is typically 23 years. City officials maintain the that the tool,  if used judiciously,  can be effective, spurring development. The two Downtown I TIF, the Downtown II IF, and the Howard Street TIF all benefited the City economically.

The Howard Street TIF, located just east of McCormick Boulevard, contains the  shopping plaza where Best Buy, Jewel Food Stores and Target are located. The City also provided TIF funds to Autobarn to relocate some of its automobile enterprises to the then-vacant property behind the plaza.

In the downtown area, the Whole Foods-Peet’s Coffee development, Church Street Plaza, Sherman Plaza, the Maple Avenue garage and the Sherman Avenue garage received TIF funds. The final distribution of the Downtown II TIF funds went for the renovation of Fountain Square.

The Levy Senior Center, formerly located in the downtown area, was rebuilt in James Park with TIF funds.

In neighboring Chicago and other municipalities, the use of TIF districts has come under fire as as depriving other taxing bodies of needed revenue and allowing dubious expenditures toward developments.

In Council discussion at the Feb. 8 meeting, several aldermen, including Robin Rue Simmons in whose Fifth Ward the Civic Center is located, spoke in favor of moving ahead.

“This is not the proposal of a new development  – it is an opportunity to create a financial tool or expanded financial tool that can help us pursue and implement the vision that we have for the West End,” said Ald. Simmons, who is not running for re-election. “It could include support with expanding affordable housing, other support for housing residents in the ward, and the future of the Civic Center seems to be likely better serving the City, not as our municipal building, [but with] an increment there [that] could help support the ward.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, noted that during Council’s discussion last year of the issue “we all made a commitment that nothing would happen without a lot of public input” on the Civic Center Civic Center, “so I think maybe some of the language in the [Mr. Zalmezak’s]  memo causes people to think that we’re down a road of selling the Civic Center without public comment.”

A Tool to Understand 

Clarifying that point, City Manager Erika Storlie said the Civic Center was included in the study area to allow officials “to gather as much information as possible, so that if the point comes in the future, where the Council wants to decide what to do with the future of this property, then the City Council will have all the information at its disposal with which to make the decision. 

“So this is a long-range plan, as well as a tool for us to understand what the value is and what could possibly be leveraged with the property,” she said, maintaining there is no plan on the table to sell the property.

Mr. Zalmezak said that “really the idea is we need an economic engine, and that engine would be the sale of the Civic Center, someday. 

And guess what? If it doesn’t happen, the TIF could still work,” he told Council members. “It just wouldn’t be as robust.”

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said that during his tenure on the Council he did not recall voting in favor of a new TIF.

“I do think this one makes sense,” he said. “This is not some kind of tool for for gentrification of this neighborhood,” he emphasized. “This is to support the community and to support the neighborhood. 

“This community has a lot of great ideas,” he said, “but we need to funnel those ideas into something that’s going to be tangible and really support this community.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he saw the TIF as similar to those that were created with success in other wards and areas. “When you generate enough income in the opportunities for affordable housing, particularly on the west end, and when you look at our combined wards, it’s just really nice to know that the future Council will have the tools necessary to help stabilize our community through this tool,” he said.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, maintained that TIFs get “a bad name because the City of Chicago does such a terrible job with their TIFs and nothing could be more different than the way the City of Evanston handles our TIFs. I mean they have always proved to be very successful. We take great care in drawing the lines to make sure that they’re that they are productive and they’re precise.”