By Ben Joravsky
Chicago’s ambitious plan to gentrify the few remaining ungentrified parts of the near north side seemed well on its way to reality, and then the city went too far.
It was full speed ahead so long as the Daley administration limited its proposal to tearing down Cabrini-Green and moving most of those residents somewhere, anywhere, just far away. But when city officials also claimed the right to seize private property around Cabrini, they ignited the last thing they wanted and about the only thing that Mayor Daley can’t withstand: a home-owners’ revolt.
Make no mistake, the property owners around Cabrini are a formidable bunch; they’re racially and economically integrated, articulate, passionate, and well connected (at least in comparison to Cabrini’s residents). They’ve hired a lawyer and they’ll go to court if the city doesn’t promise in writing to leave their land alone. “I love my city, but I despise the way they do business,” says Edna Davis, a longtime resident. “They come in, take what they want, and tell us to get out of the way. Well, I’ll tell you what–we ain’t going easy. It’ll be a cold day in hell before they get my property, and most of my neighbors feel the same way.”
At issue is the Near North Development Plan, which targets a zigzagging 350-acre site bounded by North Avenue, Halsted, Chicago, and Wells. Until recently the area was a predominantly black working-class community. In the last few years, however, hundreds of professionals–many of them white–have moved there looking for relatively cheap land close to the Gold Coast and the Loop. They like what they found.
“It’s fantastic. I love my neighbors. I love the neighborhood,” says Daniel Conley, who runs a consulting service and lives in a renovated factory across from a weed-filled lot. “I’ve poured a lot of money into this building because I love it and I’ve had tremendous confidence in the city and Mayor Daley. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
It was to accelerate that gentrification that Daley proposed demolishing Cabrini’s high-rises and replacing them with a “mixed-use” community. “Anyone who wants to stay in this community will have every opportunity to do so,” one City Hall aide assured Cabrini’s residents last year when the plan was announced. But that pledge would be impossible to keep, residents noted, since the city was proposing to demolish about 1,300 low-income units while building only 300 new ones. “A lot of people are looking for housing that’s not there,” says Carol Steele, president of the Cabrini Rowhouse Tenant Management Council. “A whole lot of people will fall through the cracks.”
Nonetheless, little sympathy was expressed for Cabrini’s residents (a recent Sun-Times editorial dismissed their concerns as insignificant and called Daley’s plan a “new start”) even among nearby property owners, some of whom quietly allowed that their neighborhood would be better off without the high-rises.
But in May these home owners learned they might be moved out as well. That’s when the city quietly announced it was expanding the scope of the project by creating a Tax Increment Financing district encompassing most of the land around the CHA complex.
The announcement was made at a public meeting on May 13, as city officials tried to assure residents they had nothing to fear. The TIF, residents were told, is an amazing financial tool that almost magically allows large-scale projects to pay for themselves. They needn’t trouble themselves over the complicated little details, but rest assured it would all work out in the end. Or as one of the flyers that officials distributed to residents read: “A TIF is a tool that uses excess tax revenues generated by new development in an area to fund the redevelopment in that area. [It creates] a healthy mixed income residential neighborhood with amenities including schools, parks, churches, community facilities, shopping and employment opportunities.”
Instead of reassuring residents, however, the meeting only made them apprehensive. “I kept thinking, why are they telling us about this TIF now? Why didn’t they tell us about this months ago?” says Mary McGinty, president of the Near North Property Owners Association. “It makes you wonder. What aren’t they saying? What are they trying to hide?”
The meeting prompted McGinty to check the Municipal Code, where she discovered that TIFs were intended to revitalize slums or blighted communities. But a quick look at the real-estate pages shows that the area around Cabrini is hardly a slum, as vacant lots fetch close to $500,000 and high-priced condos and town houses are being constructed all the time.
Furthermore, she discovered that by law the city has eminent domain authority in any TIF district (meaning it can “buy” a house whether or not the owner wants to sell); and that much of the money raised by a TIF goes to banks, consultants, and private developers. “The city oversimplified things with their explanation of TIFs,” says McGinty. “To listen to them, you’d think all the taxes raised by the TIF will be used for parks and schools. In reality, it’s just the opposite. They divert tax dollars that might go for schools and parks and spend it on developers.”
In this case the city estimates that $65 million will be spent for “property assembly, demolition, and site preparation,” another $43 million will be spent on “financing,” and $8 million will be spent on “professional services.”
“To me, a TIF is not much more than a slush fund that pays for construction and development,” says McGinty. “A lot of the money goes to developers, consultants, appraisers, and surveyors. It’s not about creating parks and schools at all.”
Suddenly McGinty and her neighbors had a lot of questions for which the city had no satisfying answers. For starters, why would Daley spend much-needed money subsidizing development in a neighborhood that needs no subsidy to be developed? Wouldn’t the money be more wisely spent somewhere else? Was it fair to allow developers getting a piece of the Cabrini-Green pie to feed from the public trough, when previous investors (such as Davis, McGinty, and Conley) had to go it alone? (“I couldn’t even find a bank willing to make a loan when I moved here back in 1981,” says McGinty.) Why were some properties in the area exempted from the TIF zone (such as the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on Sedgwick and the Father and Son restaurant on North Avenue)? If the city had no intention of using eminent domain, how come it budgeted $65 million for acquisition costs? And finally, given the history of urban renewal in the area, why should anyone believe anything the city says anyway?
“I used to have a building at Division and Howe,” says Davis. “Then when they built the first Cabrini-Green I had to move ’cause the city came in with its eminent domain. You didn’t really have a choice. They made you an offer and it went up $500 here or $300 there, but basically you had to go because the city said so. You could fight them in court, but that would cost you lawyers’ fees. So I moved to Blackhawk and Ogden until 1961, when the city wanted my property to build [seniors’ housing]. Same process again. They didn’t give me fair market value for my property. So I moved to North and Cleveland and I’ve been here for 35 years. I don’t intend to have to move again.”
In June, Davis and several of her neighbors attended a City Hall meeting of the Plan Commission, which was going to vote on whether to recommend the TIF district to the City Council. For several hours the residents sat in silence while their alderman, Walter Burnett, privately met with city officials and asked for an amendment to the TIF in which the city would pledge not to buy any property or homes.
To the surprise of few the city refused to make that pledge–on the grounds that it would delay the project. Then the Plan Commission approved the TIF after hearing various consultants explain how one of Chicago’s hottest real estate markets was really a slum. Now the matter goes to the City Council, which, if recent trends hold, will do whatever Daley tells it.
Meanwhile, the city urges residents to have faith, noting that the only reason they expanded the TIF district well beyond Cabrini was to bring in more property taxes to help pay for the project. “We widened the district to pay for the TIF,” says a Planning Department spokesman. “We have no intention of taking people’s homes. We have plenty of land in the area. It would make no sense to take more. I understand their concerns. Going back historically, the city would primarily go and take everything. But we don’t do that anymore.”
Despite the city’s assurances, the residents hired Jim Snyder, the lawyer who helped Taylor Street residents defeat a similar TIF urban renewal project in their community. If necessary they will sue, arguing that their community’s not eligible for a TIF since it’s not a slum. “I’m a firm believer in the free-market system, but maybe it’s only free if you own the market,” says McGinty. “No one subsidized me when I moved here. The same rules should apply to everyone.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary McGinty, Edna Davis photo by Robert Drea.