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Panel backs tax help for developer

Evanston’s Economic Development Committee voted 5-2 Wednesday to support a plan to provide tax breaks to the 1890 Maple high-rise project.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, criticized the proposal as a bailout and said it would set a terrible precedent for the city.

Wynne, who has consistently voted against the project on the City Council, said the project is not going forward because the economy is bad.

"Let the market figure out what’s going on," Wynne said. "I don’t see why we’re trying to prop this project up to essentially create a false market for it."

But Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, whose 2nd Ward includes the project site, said the city has frequently used sales tax revenue sharing to promote development, most recently for a planned grocery store at Asbury Avenue and Oakton Street.

He conceded that the property tax sharing part of the proposal is new, but said that needs to be evaluated based on the benefit of the project to the city.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the vacant office building on the site now generates only $19,000 a year in real estate taxes for the city. "This developer owns the property. He can take that building and knock it down and maybe we’d get $5,000 a year."

Instead, Rainey said, if the development goes forward, it would generate perhaps $10 million in property taxes for the city and local schools over the next 20 years.

Developer Bob King said the city assistance would be a lot of help in getting a construction loan. But he said at the moment the market is "completely frozen up" and nothing is getting funded.

"We hope things will thaw in the next couple of years," King said. "If you make the assumption that we’ll never get out of this recession, then probably we’ll never be able to do anything. But my strategy is to get as much lined up as we can, so we can go forward when the market thaws."

Rainey said, "I’ve supported this project since day one. It’s a fabulous plan and that area just has not had a bounce."

She said that because the city only has to pay once the development is successfully built and occupied, if it fails "we are out nothing, other than the hope and prayer that this goes forward."

Plan Commission member Seth Freeman said the project is something that would probably be good for Evanston and the neighborhood. "In an environment like we have today, it would be a blessing to get some projects happening in Evanston and move this economy forward," Freeman said.

But Robert Creamer, chair of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, said he agreed with Wynne that the plan would set a bad precedent. He said that in past sales tax sharing agreements the identity of the retailer has always been known. "Right now we’re just sort of hoping to share a piece of pie in the sky," Creamer said.

The committee agreed to recommend to the City Council that the project upon completion should qualify for two forms of "pay-as-you-go" aid.

One would be a 50 percent rebate of the city share of property tax revenue from the site. That could last for up to 20 years and would be capped at $1.9 million. Property tax revenue to the schools would not be reduced.

The other would be a refund of city sales tax revenue generated by a planned grocery store in the project. It would be based on the discount from market rent the developer had to offer to sign the grocer and could total almost $3 million over its 15-year term.

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