Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Venture: Englewood pins hopes on new tax district

A CPR report on Englewood residents wanting the benefits of a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district. Both Asiaha Butler and outgoing Ald. Lyle were quoted in this piece.

Here's [AUDIO] for that in addition to the brief excerpt:
The state's been slowly adding jobs again, but the gains aren't spread evenly. It's particularly tough to jumpstart the economy of a blighted area.

Take Englewood, for example. On 69th Street near Wentworth Avenue, there are 18 acres of vacant land that used to be Kennedy-King City College. That empty stretch of land – the size of several football fields – represents promise to many people in the community who would like to see the vast expanse translate into jobs. But they want something more than just big box stores.

A financial boost might come in May, when an economic development tool—tax increment financing—likely will be approved. With the TIF as a lever, residents have what you might call a business plan for the 67th Street corridor.
TIFs have been controversial - criticized for being a slush fund for Mayor Richard Daley.  Some tax money gets collected and earmarked to help lure business development. But TIF money often has flowed to areas that aren’t blighted.

In Englewood, it’s a different story. In theory, this is the kind of area TIFs were designed for. That’s why residents like Butler are eager for the opportunity to put a renewed economic shot in their neighborhood.

Well, I do agree Englewood is a clean slate. However, it's difficult to get something created on a clean slate:
“So now that we are here with a blank slate we are taking a new look at we’re going to have community meetings again,” Lyle said. “The community, at a minimum, they want some retail.”

Lyle recognizes that blight may be the reason a TIF-generated economic development project belongs here.  But it’s also what makes even a vast vacant area like hers a hard sell.

“The problem is because it’s blighted and because business people are very conservative, they don’t take risks,” Lyle said. “That’s not how they make money by taking risks and having a vision of what’s to come. It’s going to be a hard sell. That’s why I say it may take multiple developers.”
Rachel Weber is an urban planner and policy professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She’s also an expert on TIFs. She agrees Englewood is the exact kind of neighborhood that TIFs are for. But the downside of a TIF in a blighted area is that it’s seen as a silver bullet.

“What we found is that that’s not always the case. You really need to have independent market interest in an area,” Weber said. “TIF alone is not going transform a neighborhood that has no retail activity to a thriving commercial district.”

Weber says about one third of Chicago’s TIF districts are dormant – mostly in neglected areas on the South and West sides.

“You need the city to overcome some of the sort of the site-specific impediments of the area so you may need to sweeteners, some city incentives,” she said.
It's noted that R.A.G.E residents will serve on a potential TIF advisory council, so this next piece of advice is important:
But [Professor Weber] says residents need to be business-savvy.

“There are certain kinds of businesses that are going to ignore sort of an urban-format store at all costs,” Weber said. “They only are comfortable in a suburban retail strip so it doesn’t make sense to pursue retailers that will have no interest in moving to the city.”

Weber says Englewood has many community assets to flaunt. Public transportation is plentiful.  There’s an expressway nearby. Englewood is home to major institutions such as a hospital and a brand-new Kennedy-King campus. There’s also density.

Jake Cowan is with LISC Chicago, a nonprofit that helps jumpstart community organization and development. He says residents can be resourceful -- helping create, for instance, a clean and neat neighborhood appearance for interested developers.

“So things communities can do to help encourage that are as simple as working on cleaning up vacant lots in their community,” Cowan said. “Things like a block club adopting a couple of lots or a church adopting a couple of lots. Just going out with trash bags and trash cans.”
OK, I agree about transit. Density well there was density in old Englewood when there was a thriving retail district on 63rd & Halsted. That will need work of course. Redeveloping Englewood will surely take time if it will happen. I also hope that the old site for Kennedy-King College at 69th & Wentworth will one day be redeveloped.

I still hope a Whole Foods Market is in Englewood's future. :P


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