The last time the TIF-funded deal at Montrose and Clarendon reared its ugly not-so-little head was on a sweltering day in June, when everyone involved would have been better off watching the NBA finals.
About 600 people crammed into the Clarendon Park field house for a community referendum on a developer’s proposal to spend $50 million in public money to build condos, a health club, and a grocery store on a 31-acre site now occupied by a vacant medical facility.
The final vote was about 10 percent yes and 90 percent “Hell no!”—as in, do you think we’re so stupid as to dole out so many tax dollars to a developer?
A few days later, the local alderman, James Cappleman (46th), announced that the deal was dead—at least for the foreseeable future.
Well guess what? The foreseeable future is now the past. The deal is back.
Yes, the proposal has been miraculously revived, like some old zombie clawing its bloodied hand out of the crypt. Over the last few weeks, the developer, Sedgwick Properties, has quietly sent City Hall a zoning-change request for a scaled-down version of the project.
On December 8, Alderman Cappleman is scheduled to hold yet another public meeting on the matter, this one at Weiss Memorial Hospital. If all goes well for Sedgwick, the deal will be approved in the next few months.
I’d love to tell you Alderman Cappleman’s take on the miraculous revival of this plan, but after I called his office I wound up talking to Tressa Feher, his chief of staff. Apparently the alderman is too busy to take questions from inquiring reporters.
According to Feher, Sedgwick has “redesigned” the project so it’s smaller in scale. The firm is also not asking for $50 million in tax increment financing funds—now it wants a mere $31 million.
Oh, and one more small thing. In August, Sedgwick brought in a little extra help: former alderman William Banks, who used to chair the City Council’s zoning committee, and Greg Goldner, now CEO of Resolute Consulting, who managed former mayor Richard Daley’s 2003 mayoral campaign and current mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2002 congressional campaign. Last winter Goldner was also head of a political fund, For a Better Chicago, that funneled nearly half a million dollars into the campaigns of aldermen supportive of Emanuel.
In other words, the proposal has been jolted to life by a massive blast of clout—though Feher says it’s not a done deal. “If the community doesn’t like it, it will not go through,” she says.
Hear that, Clarendon Park neighbors? It’s all on you again. Not to pressure you too much.
Look, putting aside the architectural merits of the proposal, the key issue all property-tax payers have to wrestle with is the $31 million.
In case you haven’t been following this TIF thing the last few years, here’s how it works.
When the city creates a tax increment financing district, it basically freezes the amount of property taxes that the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies can collect there for 24 years.
If the schools got $100 a year in property taxes when the TIF was created, that’s pretty much all they’ll get for the next 24 years.
In the case at hand, the real estate Sedgwick wants to develop currently produces no property-tax dollars—it’s been exempt because it’s owned by the nonprofit Maryville Academy, an affiliate of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
As soon as Maryville sells the property, its new owner (or owners) will start paying untold millions of dollars in property taxes. The exact amount depends on how, when, or if the land is developed.
Yet because it lies within a TIF district, those millions of tax dollars will go into the TIF account, which is controlled by the mayor.
In other words, the schools, parks, and county—all of whom are broke—will be left out of the tax windfall created by building on the largest piece of undeveloped land on the north lakefront.
We’re talking prime real estate that could yield a major chunk of change—maybe even enough that the city could use its share to stop the senseless cuts to its libraries, to cite just one of my peeves with Mayor Emanuel’s budget.
So this is an issue that affects more than just Uptown residents. And the first question everyone in the city should ask is why this property should be included in a TIF at all. TIFs were originally meant to be reserved for neighborhoods so poor that they couldn’t be developed any other way—as opposed to prime lakefront property about two blocks from Lincoln freakin’ Park.
As I always say about these deals: if a developer can’t develop prime property without a handout, maybe he, she, or it should get out of the development game and try something else.
Like, say, quarterbacking for the Bears—they couldn’t do worse than Caleb Hanie.
Feher says this TIF district isn’t really taking money from the schools, parks, and county since the property was off the tax rolls anyway. In other words, you can’t say the taxing bodies will be losing money they never had.
Actually, Goldner told me the same thing—which isn’t surprising, since I’m sure he wrote the script that everybody in Cappleman’s office is now reading. Hey, this is what he was hired to do.
“The only folks paying in on this TIF are the people who [will] live on the property,” says Goldner. “It’s not taking from anything, because right now it generates nothing.”
Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it, though with logic like that it’s easy to see why the city’s nearly broke.
Because you can also look at it like this: Sedgwick’s principal, Martin Paris, is essentially asking Mayor Emanuel to take the money Sedgwick will be paying in property taxes, then turn around and spend it on his development project.
It’s sort of like you asking Emanuel, “Mr. Mayor, I can really use the money I owe you in property taxes this year—so how about I spend it rebuilding my garage?”
I suspect the mayor would tell you no. Or, knowing this mayor, “Kiss my ass!”
Unless, of course, you hired Mr. Goldner as a consultant. Maybe he’ll take you on pro bono.
Call me a fiscal conservative, but as a general principle, I don’t think a city unable to fund its schools and libraries should hand a developer $31 million to build in a desirable location—even if that developer is represented by the mayor’s former campaign manager.
Now that I think about it, maybe the library system should hire Goldner.
Meanwhile, it may be true that Sedgwick has amended its plans, but that doesn’t mean it’s won any more community support. On December 1, about 150 area residents showed up to discuss the plan at a meeting of the Uptown Coalition for Responsible Development, a community group.
No vote was taken, but based on the questions and comments, it seemed that almost everyone in the room opposed the proposal.
In fact, most of the comments were along the lines of, wait—I thought this deal was dead?!
People passed around a Crain’s Chicago Business article reporting that Sedgwick is “embroiled in litigation with a lender on two South Loop condominium projects.”
As Uptown coalition member Tim Harris pointed out, if the proposed project on Montrose and Clarendon ended up running into trouble, Sedgwick would probably have to turn to the city for additional TIF help. “Once they get about halfway through with this project, what’s to stop them from asking for more money?” says Harris.
That means there may be even more than 31 million reasons to oppose this deal.