Residents Question the Use of TIF Money in Chicago's Uptown Area
TARA: I'm looking across the street and I haven't looked at this in a long time and I have no idea what it is.
On a weekday night, post-Rush Hour, Tara Anbudaiyan and her husband Pradeep walk by the corner of Montrose and Broadway in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
TARA/PRADEEP: I mean, even, as far as the construction goes, we drove by this a few weeks ago and it wasn't nearly this tall as it is now so there seems to be a lot of progress. For whatever it is. When we saw it a couple weeks ago, I even commented: "Oh, look there's our new Target," and I was all excited. But now looking at it, it could be anything…It kind of looks like a condo building.
They're evaluating the progress on what's officially referred to as the Wilson Yard Tax Increment Financing Re-development Area….or what most residents just call Wilson Yard.
The area's canvassed with signs proclaiming the end of construction in early 2010. What the neighborhood is getting…they're not really sure. The Anbudaiyans bought their condo in Uptown about three years ago. They were excited about new restaurants, shops, a movie theater…all that the TIF money could bring. The couple wanted to get the most bang for their buck when it comes time to sell:
PRADEEP: There's kind of a ‘Lakeview Creep' is what we call it, but the businesses are slowly moving up…even on the corner there at Irving Park and Broadway, they got rid of one of the currency exchanges, moved it over to the other side so you have a bigger retail space and that's what we're looking forward to.
And while growth can be positive, it's not without conflict:
SHILLER: It's always been a community that has had a lot of pressure for development and for gentrification and it's a community in some part, I think, because many people live here that have come from other places from which they were displaced that the one thing people could agree on was that they didn't want to be moved again.
Alderman Helen Shiller has presided over this Ward-the 46th- for more than 20 years. She's tried to balance development that could price people out of their homes.
But, in 1996, Wilson Yard became ripe for the picking. In October of that year, a fire on the El tracks there wiped out everything, leaving open a swath of land.
And while the opportunity to build was literally wide open, paying for that construction became another issue entirely according to Shiller:
SHILLER: It became evident to me that at least it was worth having a conversation about how we could use TIF and it looked like an opportunity, from my point of view, to do development without displacement and be able to do that creating a TIF on land that did not currently bring in very much revenue.
A TIF District would ideally funnel property taxes into a fund that would later pay for re-development there. That's the goal of a TIF District.
Alderman Shiller says after surveying groups within the Uptown community, and collecting a virtual basket of ideas, choices were then ranked.
She says the largest response called for a Target store, low income housing and that movie theater.
In 2001, a 14-block TIF District was adopted. That plan, of course, covered more than just the corner of Montrose and Broadway. So what would happen with the rest of the land and the rest of the money generated by the TIF?
SIMPSON: You can't go to some online source and trace your TIF and see where the money went, in any meaningful way.
Dick Simpson is a Political Science Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the 1970s, he served as alderman of the 44th Ward.
Simpson says that taxpayers in the Wilson Yard area are not confused by the “what” but the “why”:
SIMPSON: The whole project has had extensive public hearings in the community so there shouldn't be a great deal of doubt as to what the project is and what the presumed benefits are and the argument is about whether the benefits are really what the community wants or is there too much affordable housing. Those kinds of arguments.
Thomas Ramsdell is lead counsel for a citizens group called Fix Wilson Yard. They claim that the developer received funds before completing the project.
The group's complaint is that the Target, affordable housing, these weren't even part of the original 2001 plan. One of the businesses on the wish list, the movie theater, has since backed out. And, he says that intended goals of the TIF plan were too vague to spark concern for legal action:
RAMSDELL: It's unfair for a community group to be expected to file a lawsuit when there's really little idea of what's gonna happen. Who's gonna argue against job training? Yeah, sure that's on there, too. Daycare, $2 million. Who's gonna argue against that when it first comes out? You know, who's gonna file a lawsuit back in 2001?
The group did file suit in December 2008. The motion was dismissed and construction continues at Wilson Yard.
Ramsdell says that the core of Fix Wilson Yard's complaint is not about the actual use of a TIF, but centers around how the taxpayers' money is being spent.
That leaves residents like the Anbudaiyans waiting and watching to see if TIF dollars create the growth they want, especially on the strip across from Wilson Yard.
TARA: This stretch of Broadway I've tended to avoid just because it's always been a bit run down and I just don't really like walking around here.
Correction: Alderman Helen Shiller was first elected to the city council in 1987, according to her website. We regret the error.