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A proposal to create yet another tax-increment financing (TIF) district on the City’s west side met with skepticism and concern from both sides of the dais at the public hearing on July 12.
The City has promoted the new TIF as a means of enhancing businesses in and bringing new economic development to the area, which has historically been the home to many Black residents.
Yet several speakers at the hearing, several of whom live in the Fifth Ward, said they feared the TIF was a mechanism to diminish – one even said “remove” – Evanston’s Black population.
A Brief History of the Five-Fifths TIF
Current Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns inherited the proposed TIF from his predecessor, Robin Rue Simmons, who retired in May. It was originally proposed as an expansion of the existing Fifth Ward TIF, called the West Evanston TIF, but since that TIF is set to expire within a decade, City officials decided to create a new TIF, which would have a 23-year life span.
As proposed, the Five-Fifths TIF encompasses land extending from the Morton Civic Center on the east to Darrow Avenue on the west. South to north it follows Green Bay Road/Ridge Avenue from Clark Street to Central Street.
Its name harks back to the Three-Fifths Clause in Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which declared that any person who was not “free” would be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining population apportioning representation in Congress, said City Senior Economic Manager Paul Zalmezak.
“The three-fifths compromise … was in our country’s Constitution. And this name is symbolic of really making this part of the community whole again. It’s meaningful, and it also represents the Fifth Ward,” the historic heart of the City’s Black community, said Mr. Zalmezak at a meeting on June 3.
The almost palpable rejection of the TIF by residents on July 14 was in contrast to the apparent lack of opposition earlier in the process.
Nearly a year ago, at the Oct. 28, 2020, Economic Development Committee meeting, Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Simmons introduced a request to have the City hire a consultant to study the feasibility of expanding the West Evanston TIF. She said expanding the TIF could provide economic benefits to existing businesses, fund needed improvements and help attract new business to the area.
In February of this year most Council Members appeared to be supportive of this new TIF. At a Feb. 8 City Council meeting, Ms. Rue Simmons and some of her colleagues said they favored proceeding with the proposed TIF.
“This is not the proposal of a new development,” she said at that meeting, “[but] 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. 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.”
June 3 Joint Review Board Approval
Because in a TIF district only the base property tax revenue – the tax on the property at the time it was put into the TIF – is distributed to the taxing bodies during the life of the TIF, representatives of each of those taxing bodies must meet as a board – the Joint Review Board – to approve the TIF. At their June 3 meeting, the Joint Review Board members unanimously approved the proposed TIF. City Council must still approve the TIF.
The July 12 Public Hearing
At the regular July 12 City Council meeting representatives from Kane, McKenna and Associates, the City’s TIF consultant, described their findings that qualified the area as a TIF district.
The Morton Civic Center, the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus Building, Foster Field, the properties along the Green Bay corridor, the Hill Arts District, and clusters of businesses at Church/Dodge and Emerson/Green Bay/Asbury all fall within the boundaries of this TIF.
Benefit or Harm to the Black Community?
A conundrum posed by this proposed TIF is how to maintain affordability in an area that is targeted for economic growth. As housing values increase in an area, so do property taxes, making it difficult for those with fixed incomes or low-paying jobs to make ends meet.
Several Evanstonians spoke out at the meeting about the harm they foresaw from the proposed TIF.
Long-time Evanston resident and activist Bennett Johnson said he thought this TIF was another zoning tool to harm Black residents. A year ago, he said, there was “talk about the fact that they want to get rid of the Black people in the City. And this, in my opinion, is the method for doing it – removing the Black community at all costs. … It should not be supported by any member of the City Council.”
Darlene Cannon enumerated several multi-family developments over the past years and said that, with the new town homes proposed for Jackson and Wesley avenues, “the gentrification process is almost complete.”
Carlis Sutton said, “Again, we as Black members of the Fifth Ward are observers to a bait-and-switch. I was told by many members earlier that ‘Your neighborhood is the prime neighborhood for gentrification.’ I’ve seen it in my block. I’ve seen it in my new neighbors. I know that my time is up for this. But let me tell you one thing, Mayor and members of the City Council, if you proceed with these kinds of shams, the only thing you’re asking for is a class action lawsuit.
“I am poor. I am angry that you disrespect us, and that you showed no respect.” Referring to the rule allocating two minutes allocated for each speaker, Mr. Sutton said, “It’s a travesty of democracy.”
Priscilla Giles said, “The new TIF plan is unknown by the majority of the people in the Fifth Ward. Not all have newspapers, nor have access to internet. The truth is, this is not what residents asked for or wanted or needed. It is the plan for developers hired by some or the owner to keep their jobs over personal profit.
“In the meanwhile, the poor and underserved citizens go wanting, with promises to have housing the priority of the new Council. The TIF will be voted on by the entire Council which covers the whole city of Evanston. But the majority of the Black people, the residences and business affected, will be the Black citizens. … It looks like what’s on the books [is] for more [people] to be removed, especially Black people.”
In his defense Council Member Burns said, “I promise – for everybody who’s tuning in tonight and in particular for Fifth Ward residents – you are never going to catch me in a position where I am selling out the Ward and not thinking in the best interest of the Ward.” He said he would like to see another meeting that allowed for questions and responses.
Other Swirling Concerns
Concerns that infused the Council’s questions as well as publics comments included the future of the Civic Center and Ingraham Park, certain language in the documents and the inclusion of the 1815 Ridge Ave. parcel.
Future of the Civic Center and Ingraham Park: Council Members Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, asked about Ingraham Park, which sits behind the Civic Center and occupies the same parcel of land as the Civic Center and surrounding buildings.
Mr. Zalmezak said earlier he did not believe City staff would recommend selling the park. At the meeting he said that separating the two parcels – the park and the Civic Center buildings – would be the safest way to assure Council Members and residents the park would not be sold. He said he would “gladly begin the process” of separating the parcels.
Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said the current City Council has not held a public discussion about the future of the Civic Center building, 2100 Ridge Ave. She said the previous City Council, which retired in May of this year, “made a pretty clear commitment to the citizens that we would do nothing until [the new Council] had conversations about it. So while this TIF is not moving us closer to selling or whatever we do at the Civic Center, I think it just adds to some public concern that we would be selling the Civic Center, and we have not had a conversation about it. So I appreciate your call, trying to make that really clear.”
Language: Council Members Fleming and Revelle each commented on the language of the TIF documents and reports. Ms. Fleming said there were “some things in there that were not so culturally sensitive to me. There was language in here about welfare to work, which I don’t think we’ve used since the ’90s in this in this country. So that was a little bit off-putting.”
Mr. Zalmezak said there is a lot of boilerplate language from the State that ends up in documents such as this, “and that’s frustrating from a staff perspective when I’m trying to work on local projects and I’m using language that doesn’t necessarily reflect our community.”
Bob Rychlicki, a Kane, McKenna consultant, said the language is part of the State TIF statute, “and to the extent the City wants to modify that as it relates to what should be there in order to be more culturally sensitive, that can be done.”
Ms. Revelle said, “In addition to maybe getting rid of some of those old terms, I’d like to see at least one new term reflected in several places in this document, just because it’s one of our current goals: our Climate Action and Resilience Plan. … We mentioned [the plan] specifically in several places [in the document] to show that we’re going to measure the success of this TIF [if] the affordable housing that we’ve created has been climate resilient and energy efficient. There are probably other ways that we could be reflecting our current goals.”
1815 Ridge Ave.: Ms. Revelle also said the property at 1815 Ridge Ave. is not “contiguous” with any other parcel in the proposed TIF. She asked whether that language should be removed before Council was asked to approve the TIF.
Mr. Zalmezak said at the Joint Review Board meeting that the building, a Trulee Evanston retirement community, was included in the TIF as a revenue-generator. It might be possible to use some of the tax increment from that project to develop affordable housing in the proposed TIF.
Evanston activist and real estate agent Mary Rosinski said the 1815 Ridge Ave. property will increase in value and questioned whether it belongs in the proposed TIF. “There is no way that this is a blighted area or is not appreciating the way that other areas are.”
She said she would “really love to go head-to-head” with Kane McKenna and go over that report with them, because she disagreed with so many of its findings.
Is This TIF Necessary?
Several speakers questioned whether the TIF district was even necessary.
Evanston resident Diane Goldring said, “I am all for making public investments in areas that have historically been neglected. If I were confident that this proposal would improve the lives of people living and working in the Fifth Ward, I would support it. But the proposal is long on platitudes and short on specifics.
“It reads like the City started with a desire to create a TIF district that includes the Civic Center, and then backed into the boundaries and the Conservation Area justification, which seems almost ridiculous, although it technically meets the criteria,” Ms. Goldring said. She added the major purpose of a TIF district is to help an at-risk area become more economically sound, but the proposed TIF has the opposite problem: “It’s at risk of gentrifying.”
She added, “How are you going to ensure that taxpayer subsidized development does not accelerate gentrification and displacement of residents? The proposed budget includes $2.5 million for land acquisition, assembly cost, and relocation. What lands will be acquired and assembled and who will be relocated?”
Yvi Russell, another resident, said the letter she received from the City said the TIF “does not directly affect my property. But every time taxes are extracted from schools, taxpayers foot the bill for expenses and rising costs for schools in the City. So I would say yes, every TIF directly impacts every resident’s tax bill, and for many, many years to come.” The City should “stop wasting money for unneeded grandiose projects and invest money in services and projects to places like the Fifth Ward. It seems to me that there are several ways for the City to help a ward rather than establishing a TIF.”
Ms. Rosinski said, “This TIF is wrapping itself around so many important community issues and has an unprecedented amount of public land and locations which don’t need intervention. This appears to be Robert Crown fans’ financial fiasco on steroids. … This TIF is just a backdoor way to sell the Civic Center.”
Meleika Gardner, owner of Evanston Live TV, said, “I know that the feedback from the people is that they do not trust other parts of the City Council.” Noting that the City will receive about $43 million in federal COVID relief funds, she said, “There’s money on the table right now. … If [City officials] knew that these areas needed this work for years, then why not just use the money that’s on the table now? I think the City Council really needs to restore confidence and trust to constituents.”
Lawyer and activist Jeff Smith said, “The proposed [TIF] district violates statutory standards as well as the overall intent of the statute. The area covered easily attracts development interest in funding and doesn’t require tax increment financing to do so. … Even without the TIF, the proposed district as a whole will have enormous [equalized assessed valuation] growth just due to [the 1815 Ridge Ave.] building coming online.”
He said one of the reasons for lack of development in the area is “not because of blight, but because the largest properties in the district are public, including an historic building that the people of Evanston voted overwhelmingly to preserve, and another that residents advocate to have landmarked, and other ones owned by Northwestern, and another large parcel that is a railroad right-of-way.
Several speakers objected to the form of the public hearing. Although the hearing was conducted in the same manner the City has used for many years, some speakers objected to being allowed only two minutes to talk. Others said they expected to be able to receive immediate responses to their questions.
Mr. Zalmezak said that within two weeks, if not sooner, he would respond to all the questions posed at the public hearing. Mayor Daniel Biss said the questions and responses would be posted on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org.
Ms. Revelle asked about the possibility of a resident advisory board for the TIF, so the neighbors would feel they have input to the projects and proposals. Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said a similar board for the Main-Chicago TIF was very helpful and she thought Council Member Burns might wish to convene one for this TIF.
Mr. Zalmezak said City staff would create a “local reporting mechanism” to provide updates on the TIF more frequently than the annual reports to the Joint Review Board.
Council Members said there would be at least one community meeting in the next few weeks, perhaps an expansive Fifth Ward meeting. No firm date or location had been announced at the time this story was posted. Updates will be posted as they are received.
Council Members took no vote on the TIF itself, and the public hearing will be placed on file. No date has been set for Council to consider an ordinance approving the TIF.
Eligibility Requirements of a TIF District
Nina Coppola of Kane, McKenna described the factors necessary for a group of contiguous properties to be considered a “conservation area,” one of several possible designations of a TIF district.
- Having an area greater than one-and-one-half acres. This area consists of 281 tax parcels.
- Conforming to the City’s Comprehensive Plan: Conformity is found in the promotion of economic development, which is part of the Comprehensive Plan and is a major purpose of TIFs.
- Being the “but for” in economic growth. Because the TIF provides incentives to catalyze redevelopment, Ms. Coppola said, “I think it’s reasonable to assume that probably development would not happen on a scale that it could if we have a TIF in place to allow not only for incentives, but for redevelopment to occur in a coordinated manner.”
- Having at least 50% of the buildings more than 35 years old. In this area, 84% of the buildings are over 35 years of age.
- As a conservation area, meeting at least three of 13 key factors. Kane, McKenna found the area meets the following qualifying factors:
- Obsolescence, relating to the age of the buildings, 55% of which are more than 100 years old, and to the underutilization or some buildings and the vacancy of others;
- Deterioration, as evidenced in siding, garages, gutters and windows; peeling paint; potholes; and cracked asphalt;
- Inadequate utilities, as evidenced by information from City staff that 44% of all of the water mains within the proposed need replacement, 37% of the combined sanitary storm sewer needs to be realigned and 16% of the roadway paving within the area falls below the industry’s standards;
- Excessive lot coverage, as evidenced by the lack of street parking and insufficient loading areas and the crowding of buildings on certain sites;
- Lack of community planning, because the area was laid out before the Comprehensive Plan was created; and
- Lagging equalized assessed valuation. This last factor may be dropped, depending on the results of the 2020 assessments, Ms. Coppola said.
The 2019 equalized assessed valuation of the proposed area was $ 34,446,678. Kane, McKenna projects that EAV at the close of the TIF will be between $85 million and $100 million.
Ms. Coppola said, “The main goals and objectives of this particular redevelopment plan are affordable housing, housing repairs, infrastructure, public improvements, park improvements, improvements of sorts of facilities [such as] Fleetwood-Jourdain [and] Family Focus, as well as improvements to the business district areas.”
The budget of roughly $89 million would be used for “land costs, demolition and site preparation costs, public improvements in infrastructure improvements, public facilities improvements, construction and relocation of public buildings, rehabilitation costs, interest cost, planning, legal and professional fees, job training, as well as any payments that would need to be made with the schools pursuant to the State statute [if TIF money is used to develop housing in which school-age children reside],” she said.
The amount of the budget cannot be changed, Mr. Zalmezak said, but line items within it can be adjusted.