By Ben Joravsky
When folks in Jefferson Park gather on their stoops these days, talk quickly turns from the weather to how they learned the city plans to take their property.
One person read about it in the paper; another heard the news slip in an offhand remark by a planning official; many more learned about it in over-the-fence conversations with neighbors.
In each case the point's the same: the disturbing news about the ambitious development scheme for Lawrence and Milwaukee didn't come from the city. As anger mounts, city officials, particularly 45th Ward alderman Patrick Levar, find themselves on the defensive, pleading for calm and reassuring nervous property owners that "nothing's set in stone." Though it's doubtful that locals can kill the project, Levar and Mayor Daley have made their own job more difficult by violating the central tenet of good planning: Keep people informed.
"This project was designed by a small core of people acting behind the scenes," says Ron Ernst, a longtime Jefferson Park resident. "So when the rest of us found out what was going on we're even madder, because it looks as though they're trying to sneak something by us."
The section of Jefferson Park earmarked for Tax Increment Financing development resembles countless neighborhood commercial strips in the city: big corner banks surrounded by small storefronts housing locally owned shops and diners. For the last few years, members of the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, fretting over a growing number of vacancies, have pleaded with city officials for some sort of economic boost.
So in February 1997 the city hired Camiros Ltd., a private consulting firm, to come up with a "master plan" for development. According to an article in the Chicago Northwest Side Press, a local paper, Camiros was to solicit the views of home owners and merchants before preparing the plan.
On December 1, Camiros released its Jefferson Park Business District Improvement Plan. Though short on specifics, the report said the business strip had "become somewhat obsolete in terms of its physical layout and general environment" and called for more parking (including a central garage), new facades, and street landscaping. An accompanying sketch showed a prettier, more prosperous street with several older buildings cleared for parking and newer stores.
City officials were enthusiastic, particularly Levar, who told the Press the proposed changes reminded him of Disney World.
But few property owners were as ecstatic. For instance, Lawrence Schumacher, president of Northwestern Business College, discovered that the report called for public parking on the lot where his college is located. "How could they just write us out of existence?" says Schumacher. "We've been in this community since about 1902. We've been in this current building since 1984--it's one of the newest buildings in the area. We're one of the largest local employers--we have about 85 employees and 720 students. It would be awful if we had to move to the suburbs."
According to Schumacher, no one from the city or Camiros contacted him. "They hired a consultant who didn't consult with us. It makes no sense."
Schumacher wrote a three-page letter to planning commissioner Christopher Hill detailing the local jobs and taxes the business college generates. Hill responded with a one-paragraph note offering his regrets for "any misunderstanding this plan may have created." But "they still didn't ask me to meet with them," says Schumacher. "They still didn't explain why we had to go."
Another angry property owner is Ernst, whose home near Milwaukee and Lawrence was designated to be a parking lot. "No one contacted me. No one said, 'We know you live at the center of this district--what are your ideas?' My family and I have lived here for over 40 years. We don't want to move. We don't want to sell. How dare the city just issue a plan like this without even asking us!"
On April 1, four months after the Camiros report was released, the city held a general meeting on the proposal. "I screamed my head off," says Ernst. "I said, 'Are you saying you're taking our homes?' Levar said, 'No, this is just a plan. Nothing's etched in stone.' I said, 'Well, you have sketched a parking lot where our house used to be--that looks like stone to me.'"
At the end of the meeting, Levar removed Ernst's home from the TIF. Nonetheless, Ernst has been spreading word of the TIF to his neighbors, many of whom claim they received no notice of April's meeting. As they soon learned, the project was part of a TIF district stretching raggedly along Milwaukee north from Montrose to the Kennedy Expressway. (This would be part of a larger TIF district Daley's creating along Milwaukee south all the way to Addison.) As with most TIFs, development bonds are to be repaid with the increased tax revenue generated by the project.
"I think Mayor Daley's getting far too carried away with TIFs, and they're not thinking about the long-term consequences," says Ernst. "What happens if the projects fail? Then the city's stuck paying back the bills. And for what? So you can kick out one business to make way for another? The scary thing about a TIF is that it involves eminent domain. Once a TIF's approved you're under the gun. They can seize your property anytime, no matter how many promises the local alderman gives you. They can just kick you out and let you take it to court if you don't like the price they offer."
On July 15 the TIF proposal came before the Community Development Commission, an advisory board. "I showed up at that meeting in favor of the plan," says Herbert Straus, who owns Value Transmission, an auto repair shop on Higgins. "The fact is, I didn't really know anything about it--I thought it was about putting up facades and landscaping. So I'm sitting there listening when I hear a planner say something about putting a public space where this small auto repair shop is. And I think, 'Hey, that's me!' I mean, it made no sense. Why would you destroy a successful business in order to create a [public square] that pays no taxes?"
By this time, project boosters felt many protesters were being paranoid. Yes, it's true property can be seized in a TIF. But no one said any property would be taken in this TIF. This was only a proposal--a "working tool," Camiros called it. And how could residents say the plan was conceived in secrecy? OK, it's true, only a few people were involved in the beginning. But that's how big deals get shaped, at least at the start. Any planner who tries to please everyone winds up pleasing no one.
The one paid employee for the chamber of commerce--the members of which are divided on the proposal--passes inquiring reporters on to Glenn Nadig, publisher of the Press and other community papers. "The TIF is in its infancy. It has a long way to go," says Nadig, who adds that reports of local opposition are exaggerated. "There are 300 to 400 parcels of property involved in the TIF, and yet at the [April meeting] there were maybe eight voices of opposition. That ratio is in favor of the TIF."
Daley administration officials predict residents will learn to love the plan. "TIFs have become Mayor Daley's economic development tool of choice, and for good reason," says Becky Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Planning Department. "The city has lost 56 percent of its federal funding since 1980. This presents a daunting challenge to find ways to spur development. TIFs are that tool. Our studies show that for every one dollar the city invests in a TIF, the private sector invests $6.30. TIFs work."
To prove her point, Carroll mentions the large shopping center nearby at Milwaukee and Irving Park. "It has many nice stores, including a Jewel," she says. "That would never have happened without a TIF."
But so far it's been a hard sell. "How did they draw these lines of the TIF?" asks Leonid Hantel, a resident. "It's too arbitrary. Why is one street in and another out? Why does one neighbor have to sell and another get to stay?"
Other residents feel the city did not try hard enough to notify them. "So few people showed up to protest in April because no one knew about the meeting," says Michael Numerowski, a retiree who lives in the area. "They say they sent out letters--well, I never saw mine. They should have sent a letter saying, 'This plan may require you to give up your property.' Then they'd get a crowd! Don't just bury a story in a newspaper. Let us know what's going on."
Many residents are angry at Levar, who may have made himself his own worst enemy by playing hard to get (he did not respond to repeated phone calls or even an impromptu office visit). "It took him forever to get back to me--I told him he had to be the hardest man in the city to reach," says Schumacher. "He promised nothing would happen to my business. But what good is his word if another alderman comes in? What reassurances do I have then?"
Planning officials have promised to meet with residents and assuage their concerns. "I don't know what they can tell me to make me feel better about taking my property," says Straus. "I moved here for a reason--I like the location. I put a lot of money in my business. I generate $18,000 a year in taxes. And what do they do? They come up with a proposal that wipes me off the map. This is no way to build local support." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ron Ernst photo by Bruce Powell.