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Doubts raised on Evanston Plaza tax district

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Two aldermen raised questions at a public hearing Monday night about plans to establish a tax increment financing district to help revive the Evanston Plaza shopping center at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, suggested she doesn't think some of the factors that a city consultant's report used to demonstrate the blighted conditions needed to justify creation of a TIF under state law actually are valid.

She said it appears there's nothing inadequate about the layout of the center and that supposedly "inadequate utilities" should have been replaced when the center was built about a quarter century ago.

But Paul Zalmezak, an economic development planner for the city, said century-old water and sewer lines run down Dodge Avenue, just within the proposed TIF district's boundary.

And the city's TIF consultant, Bob Rychlicki from Kane McKenna, said issues with how the center was designed — with several spaces for relatively large big-box like tenants — make it difficult to reconfigure the spaces to suit new tenants who likely would want smaller stores.

Burrus said she doesn't believe the city should get involved in recruiting new tenants for the center — one of the roles envisioned for the TIF. "That' should be the owner's job," Burrus said.

But Zalmazak said the city could help get "a little bit above average" tenants for the center in the short run than the owner might be able to recruit on its own, by providing assistance to help with build-out costs or other needs.

Top: Vacant shops at the plaza. Above: Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said that although he visits the center several times a week, he believes people don't like to go there because they don't like the look of the surrounding neighborhood.

"The plaza is the best looking" of the  corners of the Dempster-Dodge intersection, Wilson said, and the other corners have been part of the West Evanston TIF for years.

He suggested he had doubts about how the new TIF could fix the neighborhood when the West Evanston TIF hasn't fixed it.

But Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she believes the shopping center isn't attractive because it's nearly half empty.

"If the stores were occupied, you'd see a huge change," Rainey asserted.

Alderman Judy Fisk, 1st Ward.

Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she favors the TIF. "I think the space is potentially so wonderful and visible and could bring so much to the city," Fiske said.

The plan also drew support from Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose 2nd Ward includes the plaza site, and from Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward.

The only member of the public to speak at the public hearing, Jeff Smith, of 2724 Harrison St., said TIFs are overused, and the proposed $20 million budget over 23 years for this proposal is too large.

He said the current owners of the plaza "have already gotten a couple of big breaks on the property," buying it from the bank that foreclosed on it for not much more than the previous owner paid 13 years ago and recently receiving a 66 percent property tax reduction.

"I don't think the property is blighted," Smith said, and the local taxing districts will probably get more taxes from it over time, with or without the TIF.

The City Council could vote on whether to approve the TIF as early as its Tuesday, May 29, meeting.

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