Special taxing district for North Michigan Avenue security stalls; some warn foot traffic, sales are at ‘perilous levels”

Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Brian Hopkins complained that a “significant portion” of the property tax increase would be spent on operating expenses, instead of on security improvements to lure shoppers back the Mag Mile.

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Art on the boarded up windows of a Columbia storefront on North Michigan Avenue on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Art decorates some windows that remain boarded up along North Michigan Avenue.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Commercial property owners along pandemic-ravaged North Michigan Avenue will not be asked to pay higher property taxes to bankroll security improvements spurred by two rounds of looting and nearly constant demonstrations.

Not yet, at least.

A proposal to create a special taxing district for commercial properties fronting Michigan, from Oak Street south to the Chicago River, stalled in the City Council’s Committee on Economic and Capital Development on Monday at the behest of two local aldermen.

That’s even though Chicago’s marquee shopping district, home to 65% of the city’s hotel rooms, is an economic engine driving the city’s economy.

The delay was a high-stakes test of aldermanic prerogative: the treasured Council tradition of deferring to any local alderman’s wishes.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) acknowledged Michigan Avenue desperately needs help after being “pummeled” in 2020. But he argued it would be equally “unprecedented” to approve the “special service area” in just five months when the process is supposed to take 12-to-15 months.

“The SSA process has really important way stations and checkpoints to protect the taxpayers who are being asked to pay this extra burden. Many of those have been removed. When we go through shorter, rushed processes, we make mistakes,” he said.

A woman walks past Nike at 669 N. Michigan Ave. on the Magnificent Mile after looting broke out overnight in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, Monday morning, Aug. 10, 2020.

The Nike store at 669 N. Michigan Ave. was among the Magnificent Mile stores looted in August. A measure to create a special taxing district in the area, which would have funneled extra property taxes into security measures, stalled in a City Council committee on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Reilly’s objections were not confined to violations of process. He’s equally concerned a “significant portion” of the money generated by the three-year tax hike would be spent on “salary, contracts, personnel and other operating expenses.”

That’s instead of “hard improvements to infrastructure” Reilly believes are desperately needed to lure people back to the Mag Mile.

“Things like the installation of protective bollards. A more fulsome network of security cameras. The idea of, perhaps, retractable bollards. These things cost a lot of money,” Reilly said.

“To suggest that approving this today is going to get the Mag Mile out of the difficult situation that it’s in, I think, is disingenuous.”

MAGMILE_121520_06.jpg

Months after looting, the Magnificent Mile continues to see less-than-magnificent foot traffic.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Reilly noted $100,000 of the budget would be spent on “people counters.”

“Any one of us can walk out on the avenue and count the people on two hands. That’s not a good investment right now. That doesn’t harden the infrastructure to prevent future acts of violence against our retailers. Looting and rioting,” Reilly said.

“Bollards do that. Security guards do that. Lighting and cameras do that.”

Reilly said he wants to help North Michigan Avenue, but there’s a “right way and a wrong way” to do that and a “truncated, hurry-up-and-approve-it” process is the wrong way.

Hopkins joined Reilly in asking colleagues to “vote this particular version down and stand with us as we hit the re-set button ... on a process that can and will result” in a taxing district they can support.

“This needs to be a standard SSA. It needs to be a 10-year lifespan. The budgetary issues need to be resolved in advance. There simply wasn’t time to do this,” Hopkins said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Department of Planning and Development was a strong supporter of the special taxing district and had hoped to rush it through by a Dec. 29 filing deadline.

The decision to hold the SSA in committee and follow the normal 15-month process means there will be “no funding mechanism” to revive North Michigan Avenue during 2021, according to Deputy Planning Commissioner Mary O’Connor, a former alderman.

A nearly empty sidewalk on North Michigan in Magnificent Mile, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

A nearly empty sidewalk on North Michigan Avenue Monday bears witness to the worries of some merchants that action is needed now to support an area that is normally a key part of the city’s economy.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Several clout-heavy stakeholders who testified in favor of the special taxing district questioned whether North Michigan Avenue can afford to wait that long.

They warned foot traffic and sales are at “perilous levels” and a showcase shopping district “already under stress” before the pandemic is now in danger of dying.

“The Mag Mile has never been in a tougher situation. … It’s really a dire situation ... not just for people on the avenue,” said Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurants.“It brings people to Streeterville, River North and everywhere else in the area.”

Lee Golub is a principal of Golub & Co., the owner of Tribune Tower that hasrepresented 75% of the property owners along North Michigan Avenue.

“Taking into account … the COVID-19, increased crime, the social unrest we’ve seen on the avenue this summer, our economic engine is in the midst of a P.R. nightmare and we need to fix that,” Golub said.

“Our goal is to re-brand Michigan Avenue as the place to be again. And we won’t be able to do that until we cure some of the negative effects that have happened this summer that have tarnished the Mag Mile’s appeal. We need to make people feel safe to be on the avenue again.”

Chicago Police stand guard on the Magnificent Mile and the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River is lifted after looting broke out overnight in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, Monday morning, Aug. 10, 2020.

Looting that hit parts of the city, including North Michigan Avenue, in August (the second weekend of major looting this year) led Chicago police to stand guard at the Chicago River and raise the Michigan Avenue bridge to restrict access to the area.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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