As part of my effort to be as jolly as Santa during the holiday season, I'm going to say something really nice about the proposal to spend $14 million of our property tax dollars on an upscale housing complex on the north lakefront.
Hmm. Well, Mayor Emanuel and the City Council haven't approved it—yet.
Hey, at least I'm trying.
The proposal is the latest variation on a scheme first proposed two years ago to develop the abandoned Cuneo Hospital at Montrose and Clarendon, a couple blocks west of the north end of Lincoln Park.
As you might have figured, the money would come from the tax increment financing program. TIF money is supposed to be used to eradicate blight in poor communities with no other ways to spur development. But, as you may have heard me point out a time or two, it's become a slush fund filled with hundreds of millions of property tax dollars diverted from the schools, parks, and other public bodies.
In 2011, Mayor Emanuel claimed he was reforming the TIF program and appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study it. The committee prepared a report that, among other things, called on the city to reserve precious TIF funds for truly impoverished neighborhoods.
The mayor then held a press conference, thanked the committee for the report, posed for pictures, and proceeded to ignore the most significant recommendations—especially the one about limiting TIF spending to areas that might not attract investment without it.
The Montrose and Clarendon site is not in one of those areas.
Two years ago, Sedgwick Properties came to the Uptown community with a plan to spend $50 million in TIF money to build roughly 900 units of housing, including two soaring high-rises, at Montrose and Clarendon. Sedgwick also proposed to spend $6 million of the TIF money to fix up the dilapidated Clarendon Park field house nearby.
But the Uptowners didn't fall to their knees to say, "Thank you, papa!" Instead, they asked why the field house couldn't be fixed up without spending the extra $44 million.
It was an excellent question for which there was no compelling answer—at least not one Mayor Emanuel was prepared to give.
Probably because, if my suspicions are correct, the idea of sprucing up the field house was offered as a way to win over enough locals to give the mayor and 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman the cover they needed to approve the housing deal.
Not that it takes much cover to get our mayor to give public money to developers.
I will now refrain from going into detail about the $29 million in TIF money the mayor is doling out to build an upscale office building downtown on the banks of the Chicago River, in one of the wealthiest parts of town.
In contrast to that debacle, the Montrose and Clarendon saga had something of a happy ending the first time around.
On a swelteringly hot day in June 2011, roughly 600 people crammed into the Clarendon field house to raise holy hell. And in a nonbinding vote, roughly 90 percent of them rejected the deal.
It's kind of like me telling the mayor that I won't be paying property taxes. Instead, I'll use the money to buy a satellite dish for my house.
That pretty much killed it because, let's face it—even Mayor Emanuel would have a hard time plowing on in the face of such opposition, at least on the north side. On the south or west sides, it's another story—as we saw when the mayor closed all those schools in the face of so many tears and jeers.
In any event, Sedgwick returned with a scaled-back proposal that called for using $32 million in TIF money. Once again the community said no at a public hearing.
Eventually, Sedgwick dropped out. And now it's been replaced by JDL, which is seeking $14 million in TIF money to build two towers of roughly 750 units of housing.
So I guess we could call this a triumph of neighborhood organizing. If the locals hold out longer, they might someday find a developer willing to build something on the land without a handout.
On the other hand, there's no longer talk of spending money to fix up the field house. So it's one of those one-step-forward, one-half-step-back deals.
I called Alderman Cappleman and Jim Letchinger, JDL's president, to ask why we should spend any money on this project, much less $14 million. Neither called me back.
Just so you know, this deal is not as costly as the mayor's scheme to spend $92 million to build a DePaul basketball arena and Marriott hotel in the South Loop.
In that plan, the mayor's taking tax-producing property and making it tax exempt. So he's literally taking money away from the schools.
In this case, the land is already tax exempt because it's owned by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a religious organization.
If JDL buys it, the firm will have to pay property taxes. Only instead of going to the schools and parks, the money will go into the TIF pot and be used to pay for the project.
It's kind of like me telling the mayor that I won't be paying property taxes to the schools and parks this year. Instead I'll use the money to buy a satellite dish for my house, so I can watch endless episodes of The Sopranos. Sounds like a good time for one of us.
I say we dissolve the Montrose/Clarendon TIF district so whoever buys the property will pay property taxes to the schools and parks, just like ordinary taxpayers. The money might even help some of our dead-broke schools pay for toilet paper.
The process is expected to stretch into the new year, but the final decision rests in the hands of Mayor Emanuel, who will undoubtedly listen to whatever advice Alderman Cappleman has to offer. Which I'm sure will be whatever advice the mayor wants the alderman to give.
You don't really think it's the other way around, do you?
Let's now pause to consider who gets what if this deal goes through.
JDL will get a handsome subsidy—so good for them!
Alderman Cappleman and Mayor Emanuel will get a ribbon-cutting ceremony where they pat each other on the back.
And you, the people, get to pay more in property taxes.
Ho, ho, ho—Merry Christmas!