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Seeing the light on the Civic Center

ANALYSIS: I've been trying to make sense of the Civic Center controversy, and I think I saw the light after Thursday night's cablecast debate.

The debate so far has focused on the existing Civic Center. But it's really a debate about what to do with at least three properties — the current site and at least two hypothetical models of where a new Civic Center might be built.

It's hard to focus on the future sites because they are hypothetical, unlike the building that now houses city offices. But they are out there.

We're really debating what is the best use for each property and the best way to pay for the development of each one.

Art Newman, the former 1st Ward alderman, and Steve Bernstein, the current 4th Ward alderman, claimed Thursday night that we — as city taxpayers — can get a new Civic Center more-or-less for free, but that rehabbing the old one will cost us a bunch of money.

The "free" approach involves getting part of the money by selling off the existing site to a developer and getting the rest by creating a tax increment financing district to capture the next 23-years-worth of real estate taxes from the new condos and townhouses the developer would build.

Meanwhile, the city would take (or keep) the new Civic Center site off the tax rolls and build a nice new headquarters building there.

There are two problems with this "free" approach.

The first problem is that – a few years into the City Council's search for a site the alderman can agree on that also works financially — they haven't found one. Given their apparently disparate ideas about where to look for a new site, it's not clear they ever will agree.

The second problem with the "free" approach is that we are not just city taxpayers. We also pay taxes to the schools. If the existing Civic Center site were redeveloped without the TIF on it, most of the tax money generated would flow to the schools. That money could reduce our school taxes.

When the city was dealing with a bunch of semi-derelict properties downtown and no private developers could be found to take the risks, creating a TIF to pull some public funds together to get the development process into motion made good sense.

Whether the city got the resulting new tax revenue or the schools got it, it was all money that wasn't going to have come in at all if things didn't get moving. And the TIF-funded projects spurred additional private investment that has made downtown a much better place that generates much more total tax revenue.

But the existing Civic Center site isn't derelict. As the recent battle over the Kendall College property demonstrates, there's high demand now for residential development sites in most of Evanston. At a fair price, it would be snapped up in an instant and we'd soon have new and rehabbed condos paying taxes with the same split of tax revenue between city and schools that we get in any other non-TIF area.

John Kennedy and Elliott Dudnik from the Friends of the Civic Center don't have a "free" solution. They want to float a bond issue to pay for rehabbing the building. But for the most part they look only at the existing Civic Center site.

Without considering what would happen on the properties that might become a new city hall, it's impossible to know whether their solution is ultimately more or less costly to the taxpayers than the aldermanic plan.

So let's think about where a new Civic Center might go.

It could go downtown. But downtown development has been going great for several years now. It doesn't seem to need the stimulus of a new Civic Center to stay healthy. A new tax-exempt development downtown would reduce our potential yield from that land.

Or a new Civic Center could be located in one of Evanston's few economically depressed neighborhoods — for example in the Mayfair corridor on the city's west side.

There it could serve the same purpose that the first TIFs downtown did over a decade ago — it could help stimulate additional economic development in the surrounding area that would benefit all the city's taxpayers. And it could help reverse decades of blight that have troubled the community.

Ultimately we're going to spend a bunch of money to rehab the existing Civic Center or build a new one. The real question is how do we get the most benefit for our bucks. Without considering what will happen at both the old and possible new Civic Center sites, we can't accurately determine the best solution for our community.

So, was that light I saw a true vision, or a blinding flash of stupidity? Add your comments below.

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