Chicago commission signs off on $900M Lincoln Yards TIF

Community Development Commission rejects opponents calling for delay

David Orr questions the need for speed in approving the Lincoln Yards project, backed by Alderman Michele Smith and UIC Professor Dick Simpson. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

David Orr questions the need for speed in approving the Lincoln Yards project, backed by Alderman Michele Smith and UIC Professor Dick Simpson. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A Chicago commission fully appointed by the mayor signed off on a $900 million Tax Increment Finance district for the controversial Lincoln Yards development Tuesday, over the objections of residents and elected officials calling for a delay.

The Community Development Commission voted unanimously 10-0 to approve the TIF, projected to divert $800 million in property taxes to infrastructure improvements in and around the Lincoln Yards development on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Before the meeting, however, opponents railed against the “fast track” passage that previously saw the city’s Plan Commission also approve the Lincoln Yards development a month ago within days of the final proposal being submitted.

“The fast track smells,” said David Orr, the longtime City Hall progressive and recently retired Cook County clerk who has specialized in laying bare the excesses of the city’s TIFs.

“What’s wrong with developers paying their fair share?” Orr said. “Why are they asking the public to foot the bill?”

Alderman Brian Hopkins addresses members of the Chicago Community Development Commission, with Chairman Jorge Perez at center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Alderman Brian Hopkins addresses members of the Chicago Community Development Commission, with Chairman Jorge Perez at center. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“It’s a shell game,” charged Alderman John Arena, a member of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus. “This is not the time to entertain these proposals.” Like many opponents, he urged a delay until the next mayor and City Council, to be seated after elections this spring, can consider the overall project.

“This TIF for Lincoln Yards must be shelved,” said Alderman Scott Waguespack, Arena’s colleague in the Progressive Caucus. He said it “requires further investigation,” especially given the involvement of Aldermen Danny Solis, former chairman of the council’s Zoning Committee, and Edward Burke, former head of the Finance Committee, with both implicated in a scandal leading to federal corruption charges being filed against Burke. Burke’s law firm also handled tax cases for many of the Sterling Bay properties involved in the development before being cut loose after the scandal broke.

Dick Simpson, formerly a reform-minded alderman who is now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, charged that the rapid-fire process builds on what he’s found to be a culture of corruption in the city. “We have a choice to make,” he said, “and we can’t trust the officials that are currently in office to make that choice.”

Alderman Michele Smith, whose Lincoln Park ward is adjacent to the project area, called for a delay in approving what she said is “more than likely to be the largest TIF in the history of the city.”

Addressing the commission directly, Smith said much of the land in the TIF area had been reassessed at little or no value by disgraced former Cook County assessor Joe Berrios, voted out of office last year. She said the city’s own Fleet Management lot in the area had been sold to the Sterling Bay developer for $105 million, but had been assessed at no value in order to inflate the value of the TIF district, which by law freezes property taxes at a set level, then diverts any increases after that to a separate discretionary fund for 23 years.

“The largest TIF district ever proposed in Chicago deserves real scrutiny because this is not only about fairness. This is about the taxpayer,” Smith said. “A taxpayer ripoff hurts everyone.”

Smith added that if the TIF money were to be spent on anything it should be spent on buying the General Iron site in the area to create a North Branch Park Preserve.

“There is not enough parkland here,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “It’s also not public parkland,” she added. “It is to be owned by Sterling Bay into perpetuity.” Punning on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed the members of the commission, she later said directly: “You are Rahming things through once again.”

You are Rahming things through once again.
— Juanita Irizarry, of Friends of the Parks

Jonathan Snyder, executive director of North Branch Works, which represents businesses in the formerly industrial area, called the TIF “inappropriate use of public tax dollars.”

According to Raise Your Hand Action, 35 area organizations have signed on in opposition to the project. After saying she was “appalled” by the “fast-track” process, Huu Nguyen, of RYHA, charged openly during public comment, “This is a rubber-stamp committee.” She charged the cost of the TIF could rise to $1.3 billion, and Commissioner David Reifman of the Department of Planning and Development later confirmed that could be the ultimate cost with additional borrowing.

Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes the actual project area, insisted that infrastructure improvements were needed in the area, and time is of the essence. “We can’t afford another delay,” he said. “We can’t afford to just sit on our hands when something like this is on the table.” Like other proponents, he pointed to how the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project would create 24,000 permanent jobs and 10,000 construction jobs.

In public comment during the five-hour meeting, the proposal was backed by developers, contractors, and labor groups that stand to benefit directly from the project. Chicago resident Michael Lenehan, however, said he represented none of those groups as “just a regular citizen.” Dismissing the urgency Hopkins spoke of, he suggested, “The fix is in,” asking “why this has to be decided right now.”

Ted Wrobleski, of the Sheffield Neighbors community group near the area, also urged a delay, saying, “There are still a lot of questions to be answered here.”

Lincoln Park resident Allan Mellis urged the commission to call for all 1,200 required affordable units in the 6,000-unit development to be placed on site in Lincoln Yards rather than allowing most to be farmed out over a three-mile radius. “We should not be separating the poor from the rich,” said Mellis, who also raised concerns over adequate schools, public transportation, and public access to the planned parkland.

Tim Tuten, owner of the Hideout, an independent music and entertainment club that sits within the TIF area, said it jeopardized the club’s existence, as well as more than a dozen others that have joined together to form the Chicago Independent Venues League in opposition to Lincoln Yards.

The 15 members of the commission are appointed by the mayor, with council approval.

When they voted unanimously to endorse the TIF, members of the audience responded by crying out, “Shame!” Another woman said audibly, “This was just a ruse.”

Emanuel originally ran for office eight years ago saying he would rein in TIFs, but he is going out creating some of the largest among the almost 150 TIF districts across the city.