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Evanston views: Sell low, buy high?

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A funny thing has happened to the value of parking lots in Evanston.

Last year the City Council sold a 17,000 square foot parking lot in the 700 block of Chicago Avenue to AMLI Residential for a new apartment complex for $770,000 — or about $45 a square foot.

This week the City Council voted to buy a two lots in the 1200 block of Chicago Avenue totalling about 19,000 square feet to become a parking lot for the proposed Trader Joe's for $2 million — or about $105 a square foot.

Somewhere in that $1.2 million spread would appear to be an amount that Evanston taxpayers are spending to facilitate these two projects.

Don't get me wrong. I think both projects are fine additions to the city that will substantially improve our tax base. Given the competition among towns to land new development, Evanstonians shouldn't expect that we are so special that we can completely avoid playing the development incentives game.

And yes, no two real estate parcels are exactly the same, and their surroundings and zoning may give them dramatically different values.

But there's something beneath us about all the handwaving that goes on among officials to try to persuade us that a subsidy isn't really a subsidy.

And there's a need to be more transparent with the public about the true cost of subsidies and a need to present them in ways that make apples-to-apples comparisons possible among projects.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons may be technically correct as an accounting matter when he asserts that the city will be able to carry the newly acquired Trader Joe's lot on its book for the $2 million it's paying plus the $500,000 the developer will pay to demolish the existing buildings and turn the property into a parking lot.

But there's no way any rational buyer would pay the city $2.5 million for those lots, which will be subject to a 70-year license to the Trader Joe's developer, and which stand to earn the city a puny $10,000 or so a year in off-hours permit parking revenue.

We gave the developers a subsidy. Let's figure out a straight-forward way of determining how big it was.

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