One group came with documentation, one with determination. When the meeting at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center ended two hours later – at about 9 p.m. on Sept. 9 – it appeared that neither the small group of residents nor the City representatives had moved from their positions about the City’s newest proposed tax-increment financing, or TIF, district.

Bobby Burns, the Council member representing the ward that encompasses the proposed TIF, said he believes the opposition is based on mistrust.

The area around Ashland Avenue and Simpson Street, part of the proposed TIF, has several thriving businesses, such as Soul & Smoke, Evanston Imprintables, Double Clutch and Rex’s Place. (RoundTable photo)

The area in the proposed TIF district meanders from the Morton Civic Center, minus adjacent Ingraham Park, to the new high-rise at Emerson Street and Green Bay Road, north to Central Street and west to include Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, Foster Field, the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building, and surrounding properties – in all, 284 tax parcels.

While this clash between residents and City officials concerned only a portion of Evanston, the major issue – gentrification – is neither new nor resolved. To some, development and improvement guided by the principles and processes offered by a TIF district would provide more protection of an area than would piecemeal development. Both sides, though, appear to understand that market forces and the sudden desirability of an area can change its character and spur increases in property values, which almost always result in increased property taxes.

The present TIF under consideration, which the City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee will consider at its Sept. 13 meeting, is intended to benefit the residents of the area and slow the gentrification that is already occurring there, Burns told the RoundTable.

In a TIF district, the tax increment – the difference between the property tax revenues in the district as the land went into the TIF (the base) and as improved – is placed in a TIF fund that can be used to pay for certain infrastructure projects and other uses within the TIF. That increment remains in the fund for the life of the TIF, typically 23 years. During that period, the taxing bodies receive their share of the base property tax revenues.

A potential TIF district must meet certain eligibility requirements and be approved by all taxing bodies that have a stake in the property tax revenues of the area. Representatives of each taxing body meet at least annually as a Joint Review Board.

Earlier this year, Kane, McKenna and Associates, the City’s TIF consultant, found that the area met a sufficient number of the requirements to qualify as a conservation TIF district. In June, the Joint Review Board unanimously approved the District. The next steps are for City Council to approve the TIF and then file it with Cook County for final approval.

Local opposition continues

Many of the some 20 residents at the Sept. 9 meeting have been opposed to this TIF, voicing at several public meetings their concerns about the inclusion of the Morton Civic Center and the high-rise at Emerson Street and Ridge Avenue in the TIF district, whether the two School Boards had been fully informed about the TIF, the possibility of “outside” developers putting up luxury apartments or condominium buildings, and even the name of the proposed TIF – the Five-Fifths TIF – but most of all the feeling that they and other residents of the area would no longer be able afford to live there or would be driven out through the use of eminent domain.

City officials stressed City Council would direct the development within the TIF district and that a TIF district is not a development plan but a financing tool. The tax increment in the TIF fund can be used for infrastructure improvements, workforce development and other programs that directly benefit the residents of the TIF, they said.

The name of the TIF and the Black residents of the area 

City Economic Development Paul Zalmezak acknowledged that the name of the TIF – Five-Fifths – with its allusion to making the Black residents and businesses “whole,” had rankled some members of the community.  He suggested “Call it TIF Number 9.

“It is a very different TIF, dealing with our historic Black community.” He said the purpose of the TIF was to help bolster Black-owned businesses and benefit residents of the area.

One proposed use of TIF funds is to help homeowners repair their homes and fit them for climate resilience. (RoundTable photo)

Darlene Cannon said she understood that School District 65 had asked for an intergovernmental agreement “that the majority of Black people in the TIF would not be displaced.”

“An IGA [intergovernmental agreement] alone will not protect Black people,” said Burns. “It’s an important part of it, but it’s not enough.” He said he does not disagree with what the District is asking for and is in favor of an IGA.

Selling the Civic Center

The City has commissioned a study of the Morton Civic Center, which is included in the proposed TIF district. Some residents are concerned that the City plans to sell the property.

Tina Paden, whose family owns several rental properties, asked, “When do we get to talk about the Civic Center and the sale of the property?”

Zalmezak said the City commissioned one study to see what properties it could sell. It is commissioning another study to assess the Civic Center “to see if it meets the needs of the City administration. Is there a more efficient way to do it? Is it more efficient to have police and fire [headquarters] in the same space as City offices?

“So we’re doing a complete study. The study doesn’t mean that we’re selling it; the study means we’re analyzing it. It’ll take years to make this happen. … If it gets to the point where the City Council is going to recommend selling the building, trust me, there’s going to be a major process around that. We have seen this. I will point out Harley Clarke as an example. Now I know when I say ‘Harley Clarke,’ the name ignites fire – right? But my point is this: Did that happen overnight? That was a multi-year, agonizing process.”

Eminent Domain

Zalmezak said the term “eminent domain” had been removed from the language referring to this TIF. Robert Rychlicki of Kane, McKenna said that even though the City has removed the term from its own documents, including in the TIF plan, the term remains in the state statutory language. Nonetheless, both Zalmezak and Burns gave assurances that the City would not use its powers of eminent domain in the development of the area.

Additional Input

Carlis Sutton, a landlord and nearly lifelong Evanston resident, asked, “Number one, does the City do any kind of investigation of people to give us ideas? Before preparing this meeting? This meeting seems to be a little bit disingenuous when we’ve already had some person given us a presentation of what is going to be occurring. … Secondly, the west side plan is not a plan. … It has nothing to do with the residents of the Fifth Ward.  We weren’t a part of it. We want no part of it.”

Ray Friedman, another local resident, asked where the money – the $89 million estimated cost of the TIF over its 23-year life – would come from. He said issuing general obligation (GO) bonds would increase the cost because of the annual debt service payments.

Burns said it might be that the City would issue GO bonds for large projects – he mentioned a public swimming pool at one point – but added he did not think the total cost of the TIF would exceed $89 million. Generally the City has financed the cost of infrastructure projects, such as the two large downtown parking garages and the rehab of Fountain Square, by using TIF funds.

Paden also asked about a down-zoning proposal, from R5 to R5A, which would lower the maximum height from five stories to three-and-a-half stories. She said she felt developers would want to construct five-story buildings.

“That’s very important – we’ve been asking for it for a long time,” she said.

No one from the City could answer her zoning question. The City’s Zoning Code describes the procedures to make a zoning change.

Affordable Housing

The new high-rise at Ridge Avenue near Emerson Street is included in the proposed TIF district. (RoundTable photo)

Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless and Joining Forces for Affordable Housing said she is interested in seeing the possible use of funds for affordable housing and workforce development, but added “TIFs have a bad reputation for displacing people and pricing people out.

“The City does not have an affordable housing plan in place. There is reparations work [on housing]. It’s very hard for the community to envision what’s going to happen. There’s also the risk that people feel they have not been heard. What is the process going to be to get the community invested? At the same time, I’m not sure [about] the risk of approving the TIF. What are the plans for the planning procedure?”

Burns said, “We had an affordable housing plan, a comprehensive plan – we’ve had many plans that reference the same thing – economic development, affordable housing and public safety.”

Paden said, “The TIF is not for us; use the ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds.”

Trisha Connolly said, “I wonder why we have to do TIFs … [to put] affordable housing on our land, when we could do it ourselves.”

Resolutions to save Ingraham Park, benefit local residents and prevent funding of a new school

The tax parcel for Ingraham Park, adjacent to the Civic Center parking lot, will be separated from the Civic Center parcel and eliminated from the proposed TIF district. (RoundTable photo)

Zalmezak referred to two resolutions that the Administration & Public Works Committee would consider on Sept. 13. One involves the separation of Ingraham Park, which adjoins the Civic Center, and the Civic Center itself into two distinct tax parcels and removing the park from the TIF.

The second resolution is designed to “provide assurances that the funding will be devoted to those in most need.” Zalmezak said he believes this resolution, which should keep the Council aligned with its expressed values for spending TIF funds, is unique in the State if not in the nation.

Burns read that resolution, which outlined areas where TIF money would be spent: residential repairs and improvements for climate resilience, prioritizing senior citizens and low-income residents, affordable housing that would include land trusts and preference for larger units, workforce development that would focus on training local residents for jobs with larger local employer, childcare expansion and support, infrastructure, public spaces and business-district improvements.  

The resolution also expressly states, “The City commits to not supporting the use of TIF funds for: eminent domain, neighborhood clearance, funding for a new Civic Center, funding for a new Fifth Ward school, or funding for luxury housing/microunits.”

The Council member said the City culled these preferences from the input received from the public meetings, from individual residents and from representatives of the two School Districts. District 65 officials, he told the RoundTable, asked for the prohibition against using TIF funds for a Fifth Ward school and for support of larger family units. 

IGAs possible

Mary Rodino, Chief Financial Officer of Evanston Township High School District 202, said ETHS has supported Evanston’s TIF districts because the surplus of the TIF funds at the expiration of the TIF have benefited the school districts. “My understanding was there was some conversation at a previous meeting or two about whether or not this caused the school districts to lose any money or forgo money. And I think it depends on your perspective. But from our perspective – and I’ve discussed this many times with our Superintendent, our Board President and Board Vice President – is [that] it depends on whether you think that development would have taken place if it was not for the TIF.

“My personal feeling, and having been around it for about 25 years, is that a lot of the development wouldn’t have taken place, because it takes a lot of money.” She noted that the increment is “the only piece that other taxing bodies don’t participate in. We continue to get the taxes on those parcels from the date that it’s frozen when the TIF starts. So we get the tax as we always got. … And … when the TIF closes, we all share in increments.”

She also said the school districts and the City have from time to time entered into revenue-sharing or other kinds of intergovernmental agreements. “And we would be looking to do that, again, depending on which parcels ended up getting developed.”

Near the end of the meeting, some residents called upon Mayor Daniel Biss to weigh in on the TIF. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “I’m not a longtime scholar on TIFsI think the point that’s been made a couple times tonight about that resolution being a unique strategy to walk us, to the extent possible in a democracy, to actually sticking to those values is really important. So I was really pleased to see the resolution. I think it’s an important part of the strategy. My goal here is to find dollars to fund these priorities around affordable housing [and] to fund priorities around workforce development.”

Burns told the RoundTable that, although this group has been opposed to the TIF, he believes the TIF will help “Black people, low-income people, Latinx people, disabled people and anyone else who’s experiencing a hardship.

“The problem [with this group] is trust – it’s a group of community members acting from mistrust. If I say [something], they’re going to say, ‘We don’t believe in this TIF.’

“At the City,” he added, “we see this TIF as a way to invest in the community in ways to alleviate the pressure of gentrification – versus the open market.”

Next Steps

The Administration & Public Works Committee members will vote separately on the TIF resolution, the separation of the tax parcels and the TIF ordinance at their Sept. 13 meeting. Each item that is approved by a majority of the committee members will be forwarded to the full Council that evening for introduction and possible discussion. Council members would then likely vote on each of those items at their Sept. 27 meeting.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...