Evanston favors vacant lot over school

The northern suburb would rather hold out for the return of industry

September 22, 2011

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(WBEZ/ Odette Yousef)
The City of Evanston would rather keep this property vacant than have a school on it.

Communities are having a problem with vacant properties in this recession. They’re struggling to generate tax revenues, properties are deteriorating with neglect, and neighboring property values are plummeting. Most towns are scrambling to find new tenants for these buildings: businesses, homeowners, anyone.

But that’s not always the case in north suburban Evanston. When it comes to empty industrial land, the city’s actually turning down offers. It’s hoping that manufacturers will return someday.

DAVIS: Let’s walk around, okay?

Moshe Davis has found his dream. It’s a dark, damp, abandoned building in southwest Evanston.

DAVIS: As you walk over here, walk on the right.

You have to side-step puddles of standing water in the building's corridors.

Davis is chair of the Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov elementary school on Chicago’s North Side. It’s an Orthodox Jewish private school. A few years ago the school’s board bought this old building. It used to be an audio electronics company.

DAVIS: This is where the deliveries would have come and that kind of stuff. And in my mind I see over here a basketball court or two, and that kind of thing, a gym, maybe, or something like that.

Davis thinks this property is perfect for Joan Dachs’s boys school. The school’s facilities in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood are cramped. When the board bought the property in Evanston, Davis knew they were taking a gamble. The property is designated for industrial use, but the board believed Evanston would change that.

First, the building had sat on the market for years. Second, Davis says industry has been fleeing Evanston, moving to other suburbs. And, who wouldn’t want a bustling, healthy school to revitalize an empty shell?

DAVIS: We see it as a blight on the community, the vacancy of this building.

And in the remote possibility that Evanston would not change the property’s zoning, so what?

DAVIS: We'll do a cost analysis, we sell the property, no problem. And quite frankly, we would have sold the property.

Yeah. That was 2006, when you could sell property. But Davis never imagined what would come next. Evanston refused to change the zoning, and the real estate market fell apart. Davis can’t sell the property now, even though he's tried. 

DAVIS: As businessmen I don’t think any of us have encountered this kind of resistance. It’s the kind of thing that’s ... not just not rational. We can’t figure it out.

Five years after buying it, Joan Dachs has sunk millions of dollars into purchase and maintenance. Davis has spent tens of thousands on property taxes. And, Joan Dachs students still attend class in their crowded Chicago facility.

The school has filed a lawsuit against Evanston.

SIEGEL: On principle, it just seemed to me that Evanston should continue to have areas available for tax-yielding, light industrial uses.

This is Jack Siegel. Siegel used to be Evanston’s attorney, and he handled the city’s side of this case when it started.

I talked to him because Evanston officials wouldn’t comment to me about this case, since it’s still in court. Siegel says Evanston officials always considered tax ramifications of land use applications. He says Evanston has to.

SIEGEL: Without doing a scientific investigation, I would think that Evanston probably has a greater percentage of its land devoted to exempt purposes than any other municipality in the Chicago area.

Siegel puts that percentage at 45 percent. In other words, nearly half of Evanston’s land is used by religious, non-profit or educational institutions that don’t have to pay property taxes.

That’s not an issue for other suburbs.

SIEGEL: In the 60s and the 70s, Arlington Heights and Schaumburg, like so many other communities in particular the Northwest and Southwest suburbs, were expanding, because there was so much unincorporated land. Evanston has been landlocked forever.

Evanston has a workaround: It’s called “payment in lieu of taxes.” It’s a sum of money that tax-exempt landholders agree to give the city voluntarily. Not taxes, exactly, but maybe close to what taxes would be if the land were owned by a business or a resident.

Moshe Davis says the school is ready to negotiate something like that. But Evanston isn’t interested. That’s because if the city allows the land to be used for a tax-exempt purposes ... it’ll stay that way forever — even if the school one day decides to leave Evanston.

Attorney Jack Siegel says keeping the land vacant is better than putting a school on it. He says Evanston shouldn’t give up on the idea that industry will come back. And he isn’t the only one who thinks that.

Evanston resident Michelle Hays lives 1.5 miles away from the property. But she testified at a planning commission meeting in 2008 because she feels the issue directly affects her.

HAYS: Just because it’s vacant doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to become a viable commercial property at some point.

Hays says she understands that the property couldn’t be sold to an industrial tenant. But we’ve been in a recession. Hays says when the economy recovers, maybe an industrial tenant will come along. And for Hays it’s not just about losing part of Evanston’s tax base. She says there are other benefits of keeping Evanston’s few remaining industrial districts set aside for those purposes.

HAYS: Right around the corner is one of the poorest census areas in Evanston, and those people need jobs. And very often, commercial entities are the ones that provide jobs for the very, very low-income, unskilled people in Evanston.

Hays says she doesn’t have anything against the Joan Dachs school coming to Evanston. The problem, she says, is how the school board went about it: buying first and then assuming the city would change the zoning for the school’s needs. Hays says Evanston is the sort of place where residents expect to have input on those kinds of matters — right from the beginning.

Music Button: Band of Frequencies, "The Pass", from the CD Under The Sun OST, (Ubiquity)