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Tax districts get performance checkup

New development over the lifespan of Evanston’s two downtown tax increment financing districts has increased the total value of taxable property in Evanston by roughly six percent.

TIF performance 

That’s one of the conclusions to be drawn from an inch-high stack of annual TIF reports reviewed today by representatives of the taxing districts impacted by the program.

It was the last such annual meeting for Assistant City Manager Judy Aiello, who’s planning to retire soon after more than three decades with the city, and the representatives to the Joint Review Boards gave her a standing ovation for her role spearheading the city’s development efforts since the launch of the city’s first TIF in 1985.

Bill Stafford, the former city finance director who now crunches numbers for Evanston Township High School, said that first TIF, known as Downtown II, has been used as a model for successful development projects all over the country.

"People don’t realize the kind of political courage it took to get this through," Stafford said. "This revitalized the downtown" and soon, with the TIF ending, "it will provide some wonderful revenue to the schools."

School districts and other taxing bodies forego the incremental tax revenue from new development in TIF districts for their 23-year life so the city can use the funds in an effort to stimulate economic growth that will boost tax payouts for all the tax bodies in the long run. 

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, who chaired the review board meeting, said Aiello had played a key role in leading the city’s economic development process and "making the council understand the opportunities before it. I don’t know what we’re going to do when she’s gone," he added.

The Downtown II district includes all the developments in the triangle formed by the railroad tracks between Church and Emerson, plus the 1800 Sherman Ave. building.

Aiello said the landlord of the former Wolfgang Puck restaurant site in the district’s theater complex is "talking to a lot of restaurants" about the space, but "wants to wait for the right one that will be the perfect fit." That she said is the only significant vacancy in the area.

Over the past 22 years the assessed value of the property in the Downtown II district has risen from $1.8 million to $133.6 million, for an annual rate of increase of roughly 22 percent.

For the city as a whole, property values have risen at a rate of about 7.4 percent over the past decade. 

Two additional major projects have been approved for this TIF district — an 18-story condo development at 1881 Oak Ave. and a 14-story rental apartment development with ground-floor retail at 1890 Maple Ave.

Downtown’s second TIF, named for its goal of redeveloping the site at Chicago Avenue and Church Street vacated when the Washington National Insurance Company left town, was established in 1994.

That led in 1997 to redevelopment of the site by the John Buck Company at an initial cost of $36 million, Aiello said. She noted that Buck has now contracted to sell the property for roughly $100 million. The Buck project was the first major new downtown rental development built in decades.

More recently that TIF was expanded to include the Sherman Plaza block and revenue from the TIF was used to help pay for the city’s new Sherman Plaza garage.

So far that TIF has seen an annual property value growth rate of 5 percent, from an assessed value of $25 million in 1994 to $48 million in this year’s report. That figure is expected to grow further as condos in the Sherman Plaza development are added to the tax roles, and could get a substantial additional boost if the Fountain Square tower project is approved by the City Council.

Outside the downtown area, the Southwest TIF, the site of the Sam’s Club off Main Street, has shown the biggest growth rate — 11 percent — going from an assessed value of $1 million when it was established in 1990 to $9 million now, a performance City Finance Director Matt Grady called "pretty decent."

Planning Director Dennis Marino said the city hopes to relocate some auto repair shops now located along Dodge Avenue just south of the high school to a former junk yard that is the only major undeveloped parcel in the Southwest TIF. Given pollution issues at the site, the spot has been very difficult to redevelop for other uses, he said. 

Stafford said the high school is "very interested" in seeing the automotive businesses on Dodge relocated and offered to do "anything we can" to assist.

The Howard Hartrey TIF, which includes the Jewel, OfficeMax, Best Buy and Target big-box stores, has "done very well," Marino said. In addition to increasing real estate taxes, it is also a major sales tax and jobs generator for the city, he said.

Since that TIF was created in 1992, the assessed value of the property has risen from $7 million to $23.4 million for an annual increase rate of 8 percent.

In the Howard Ridge TIF, formed in 2004, the first major new development, the 17-story Bristol-Chicago rental building next to the CTA yard, is under construction. That TIF shows an 8 percent annual value growth so far, from $6 million to $7.5 million.

The West Evanston TIF, formed in 2005, has lagged behind with a 0.5 percent growth rate and an increase in value from $27.1 to $27.4 million. New owners are expected to start moving within weeks into Church Street Village, a 41-unit townhouse development that is the first major new construction there in several decades.

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