Commission approves Uptown high-rise project despite TIF tug of war

TIF press conference
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaks out Tuesday against a TIF proposal before the city's Community Development Commission at City Hall.

By Thomas Vogel

The city’s Community Development Commission approved Tuesday a development plan for a long-vacant property at Montrose and Clarendon avenues in Uptown, despite opposition from a coalition of neighborhood groups and dozens of residents.

The objections come at a time of heightened scrutiny at City Hall, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has received criticism on many fronts including its law enforcement and education policies. Residents questioned the need for more high-end dwellings in Uptown and criticized the commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, for aiding Emanuel’s allies with Tax Increment Financing (TIF) at the expense of Chicagoans struggling to find affordable housing.

“Our city requires increased public service, increased public housing,” said Tom Tresser, an Uptown resident and coordinator at the TIF Illumination Project. “The TIF program is broken. Now we see TIFs hoarding dollars in wealthy communities and being used for rifle-shot, clout-driven projects of little or no public merit such as this one.”

Other critics, including ONE Northside, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Gay Liberation Network, echoed Tresser saying the proposal, which includes about $16 million in TIF money, has insufficient affordable housing. TIFs, which set aside new property tax revenue from a specific geographical area over a 23-year period for a specific purpose, are designed to help reinvigorate development across the city.

The roughly $125 million project will replace the vacant Frank Cuneo Memorial Hospital and calls for more than 500 residential units and about 30,000 square feet of retail space, according to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who represents the area.  The plan, which includes 20 affordable housing units, does not meet a 2007 city ordinance requiring 10 percent of units to be affordable. JDL, the project’s developer, will pay a $5.7 million fine as a result.

Several Uptown residents argued the site’s proximity to the lakefront should incentivize enough private investment to pay for the entire project. TIF money, some residents said, should only be used for projects that benefit the community at large.

“The TIF program is broken,”
– Tom Tresser, TIF Illumination Project

“The people who will be living in this project are economically well-off,” said Beatrice Westrate, an Uptown resident since 1994. “They don’t need the help of our public tax money. It is not a good way to spend the TIF money. It really isn’t.”

The project’s supporters, however, contend that TIF money is the only way to develop the long-vacant site and generating tax revenue from the currently unused site trumps other considerations.

“We are taking a significant risk,” said Jim Letchinger, JDL’s president. “We’ve been down this road now for three years, three and a half years. We have tried at numerous stages to get this deal approved with institutional investors. At this time it doesn’t resonate as a truly high-end market rate location.”

After the commissioners voted to recommend the proposal to the City Council for final approval, many Uptown residents stood up and began chanting “No TIF for the rich!” in unison. Security escorted several residents from the chambers.

Despite the project clearing a bureaucratic hurdle, those opposed remained positive the project can be stopped.

“We can continue the fight,” said Charlene Andreas, an organizer with ONE Northside. “If it was all affordable housing, I’d be all for it.”

Photo at top: Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey speaks out against an Uptown TIF proposal Tuesday at City Hall. (Thomas Vogel/MEDILL)