The Community Development Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the largest tax-increment-financing subsidy in Chicago history — $900 million — to unlock the development potential of the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development.
Ignoring demands to hold off until after the inauguration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s successor, the panel of mayoral appointees agreed to create a new, 168-acre TIF; the proceeds will be used to reimburse developer Sterling Bay for a host of infrastructure projects.
They include: untangling the notoriously congested intersection at Armitage, Ashland and Elston; a new Metra station; an extension of the wildly-popular 606 trail; new bridges over the Chicago River and a possible light-rail transit connection from the site, along the Chicago River, to downtown commuter rail stations.
Local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) used that menu of improvements to answer the question he has been asked repeatedly in recent months: “What’s the rush?”
“We need traffic and transit improvements in the neighborhood I represent today. We need three new bridges over the Chicago River to accommodate the existing traffic conditions today. We can’t afford another delay,” Hopkins said.
“We need the road improvements and the signalization that are in this redevelopment plan. We need it today. The existing conditions that my neighbors have to live with and deal with the type of congestion and lack of infrastructure and crumbling bridges is unacceptable. We can’t wait any longer.”
Hopkins noted that the massive project will generate 10,000 construction jobs, 24,000 permanent jobs, 1,200 affordable housing units and a citywide economic impact of $4.5 billion.
“We can’t afford to sit on our hands when something like this is on the table before us….What city can afford to walk away from that? We’re watching that dynamic play out right now in New York City,” he said.
Hopkins was referring to political opposition in New York that prompted Amazon to walk away from a plan to build half of its second North American headquarters in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.
None of those arguments were enough to satisfy Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose ward borders the 55-acre site along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park and Bucktown.
“There are still serious questions that plague what is likely to be the largest TIF in the history of our city. There is scant public information describing how these funds would be generated or spent, what the true public benefit is and a series of false choices. Why is TIF the only … way to pay for this infrastructure?” Smith said.
Smith noted Sterling Bay recently fired its property tax attorneys at the law firm of Klafter & Burke “to stop questions of insider deal-making” by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), deposed chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.
Quoting from a Chicago Sun-Times analysis, Smith noted that Klafter & Burke persuaded former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios or the Board of Review to lower the estimated value on at least seven Sterling Bay properties.
That decision slashed property taxes on those seven properties — including the “centerpiece of this development, the former site of Finkl Steel — by 28 percent and saved the developer almost $330,000 in property taxes for one year,” Smith said, quoting the Sun-Times.
“We don’t even know whether the land in this TIF has been fairly assessed,” Smith said.
“It is only right that our new Cook County assessor Fritz Kaegi be allowed to review the assessments on all 300 Lincoln Yards properties before this mega-TIF is being pushed forward.”
Smith’s argument didn’t work with the Chicago Plan Commission last month, and fell equally flat with the CDC on Tuesday. That’s in large part because the CDC is made up of mayoral appointees and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is rushing to complete Lincoln Yards before leaving office May 20.
Well aware the CDC vote was a foregone conclusion, mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle issued an emailed statement in advance condemning the rush to judgment that will tie the new mayor’s hands.
“This is a large project that will take public money that could be going to our neighborhoods for a mega-development that will have a tremendous impact on our city,” Preckwinkle was quoted as saying.
“This proposal needs a close examination in an open and transparent process that should not be rushed. There should be no new TIFs approved until the new mayor and City Council are in place.”