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Mayor’s allies avert vote on TIF reform that would block $1.5B for mega projects

Chicago City Hall

Chicago City Hall. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A City Council committee abruptly recessed Monday after progressive aldermen appeared to have the votes to pass a long-stalled ordinance that would block Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to use $1.5 billion in tax-increment-financing subsidies to unlock the development potential of four mega projects.

Such “quorum calls” are normally requested by anti-administration aldermen when fewer than a majority of a committee members are present.

But at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting, it was Chairman Edward Burke (14th) who suggested taking attendance — to avoid a vote that could have gone against the outgoing mayor.

“If someone were to call for a quorum, I suspect it would fail,” said Burke, who was chairing his first committee meeting since the unprecedented Nov. 29 federal raid on his ward and City Hall offices.

Retiring Ald. Marge Laurino (39th) then requested a quorum call, while Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) hustled out of the City Council chambers.

Only 12 aldermen were present — three short of a quorum. Burke then recessed until Tuesday morning.

The substitute ordinance circulated Monday would limit the use of TIF to: redevelopment projects in “blighted areas” and those involving property that is either “vacant and/or obsolete.” Subsidies would be confined to projects unable to move forward without TIF support.

It also included a caveat to appease aldermen with projects in the works: “This ordinance shall not apply to those projects currently in existence or the development stages.”

Before Monday’s meeting was adjourned, retiring Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) had moved to strike “or the development stages” from the ordinance.

That could mean curtains for infrastructure improvements tied to the four mega-projects in and around downtown Chicago.

They include a Chicago River district where Tribune Media wants to build 15 office and residential towers; “The 78,” a 62-acre site at Roosevelt and Clark once owned by convicted felon Tony Rezko, where Gov. Bruce Rauner dreams of building an innovation center led by the University of Illinois; the Lincoln Yards site, which includes the old Finkl Steel plant among 100 acres along the river; and the Burnham Lakefront, which includes the old Michael Reese Hospital site.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said those TIF subsidies “absolutely” should not move forward before Emanuel leaves office.

“They haven’t met the most basic test here … They haven’t shown us a master plan as required. And they haven’t proven that this needs to move forward at the pace that they want it to,” Waguespack said.

Noting that the TIF reform ordinance has been stalled for two years, he said, “Put all the cards on the table. Have a master plan. And show the people of this city why you need to defer billions of dollars away from other parts of the city and focus on this area. And they haven’t done that.”

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman has argued that without the $1.5 billion in infrastructure improvements subsidized by new or existing TIFs, all four mega-projects would stall.

“We’re talking about opening up private development in excess of $10 billion or $15 billion that doesn’t exist today and would not occur without that assistance. We don’t have other sources to do it,” Reifman has told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Munoz countered that projects that don’t meet the so-called “but, for” standard “shouldn’t be funded.” He accused the mayor’s office of “trying to scare folks into telling them, ‘This is gonna kill your project,’ which is incorrect.”

Asked why he struck the four words “or the development stages,” Munoz said, “My colleagues convinced me to change my mind. And I’m not always right.”

Before the recess, Burke said the debate over which projects would and would not be impacted was “getting very confusing.” He also had a warning for his colleagues.

“This has far-reaching implications that should not be ignored,” Burke said.

Thompson agreed with Burke’s assessment.

“Most of the TIF dollars we use are spent on parks and schools,” he said. “We do have some TIF projects we’ve been working on for some time now. And I don’t know where that falls into this definition of exceptions.”

The largest subsidy hanging in the balance — up to $800 million — will be earmarked for Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards project. That will require the city to create a new TIF.

The $800 million would bankroll several new river crossings, relocation of the Clybourn Metra station and realignment and reconfiguration of the Elston-Armitage intersection.

The South Loop site known as “the 78” needs $500 million worth of infrastructure improvements and also would require a new TIF.

Key improvements include a new CTA Red Line station, realignment of Metra tracks that run through the site, construction of a new bridge at Taylor Street, improvements to 15th and Clark and completion of the Wells-Wentworth connector.