Commission okays controversial Lawndale TIF

The city's Community Development Commission has approved a taxing district for the North Lawndale area over the objections of residents who say the redevelopment plan lacks broad community input and will  spur gentrification that pushes some residents out.

"As it stands now, we feel the Ogden-Pulaski (tax increment financing plan) is designed to displace current residents and is being prepared for a new class of people," said Joe Ann Bradley, a founder of the Lawndale Alliance, which mobilized dozens of residents to testify at the commission hearing on the plan yesterday.

Bradley made her charges in a packed - and divided - city hall chamber. On the right sat supporters of the plan, including the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, which is working with the Steans Foundation on the redevelopment plan.

On the left sat residents allied with the North Lawndale Alliance, which asked the city's development commission to hold off on the plan until it can be amended to include more protection for residents.

A TIF, or tax increment financing district, is a popular mechanism in Chicago for funding redevelopment in areas suffering from blight. The TIF diverts a portion of property taxes generated in the district to redevelopment.

The Ogden-Pulaski TIF, with a budget of $100 million, encompasses 876 acres, mainly in North Lawndale on the city's west side. The redevelopment area stretches across the wards of Alderman Sharon Dixon (D-24) and Alderman Ricardo Munoz (D-22).

Preliminary city budget estimates for the TIF include $2.5 million for job training; $10 million for property assembly and site preparation; $35 million for rehabilitation of buildings and construction of affordable housing; and $30 million for public works improvements, such as streets, utilities and parking. The city said the TIF is aimed at providing affordable housing, public open spaces, and attracting new investment to increase the tax base.

Before the hearing, the Lawndale Alliance held a press conference to detail their criticisms of the plan. The group has been working with the Castle Coalition, a Virginia-based Libertarian lobbying group that recently helped to mobilize Lincoln Square residents against eminent domain provisions in a TIF plan in the 47th ward.

"North Lawndale is under seige," said Valerie Leonard, founder of the Alliance. She noted that the neighborhood, with a median income of $18,000, had experienced 141 mortgage foreclosures between January and November 2007 and that many residents had seen their property tax bills double in the past year.

"There are no systems in place to ensure that local residents, not newcomers and developers, actually benefit from this plan...." said Leonard. "Unfortunately, wealthy individuals, nonprofits and foundations have a greater voice in our community's development than the people within the TIF boundaries."

Joe Ann Bradley, a co-founder of the Alliance, said that, similar to Lincoln Square residents, Alliance members wanted assurances written into the plan that the city would not use its power of eminent domain to force property owners to sell.

Some residents complained that newly renovated buildings are on a list of "housing potentially subject to displacement."

City officials said, however, that of the 652 parcels that  the city plans to acquire, all but one are vacant. The owner of the occupied building has offered to sell to the city. They also said that the list of buildings that could be displaced had been reduced to 41 from 317 in the original plan.

Critics also call for more funding for economic development. Although the combined workforce development budgets for the seven TIFs in and around North Lawndale, including Ogden-Pulaski is $20.8 million, there is no community accountability for hiring and retaining local residents, said Leonard.

Others residents said the plan should require developers to hire from within the district. "We have five other TIFs with no oversight, no employment is provided," said resident Mark Carter. "I would hope the alderman would put some mandates on these developers to include us."

But other residents and officials involved with the plan said the TIF was overdue.

Sandrel Scott, a resident who described herself as a community organizer in the area for over 25 years, says she favors the TIF.

"I have watched the drug activity on the block. I do believe it is going to make our community much better and it is going to bring development and jobs," Scott said. "Thank you, aldermen, for sticking to your guns."

North Lawndale resident Kelly Smith agreed.

"We need a tool to bring more resources to our neighborhood, otherwise we're going to get the same thing we've been getting," said Smith, who said he was dismayed to return to his neighborhood after attending college and find that nothing had changed. "A lot of people I grew up with are now standing on the street corner."

Peter Skosey of the Metropolitan Planning Council said that the TIF could make Odgen Avenue the centerpiece of a revitalized business district. The planning council is working on a plan for the pothole-pocked thoroughfare that would make it more pedestrian-friendly, greener and safer, said Skosey.

"The end goal is to rehab the street itself, which would be a catalyst for development of this neighborhood and would bring in new retail and jobs," said Skosey.

"We feel that it's imperative that residents be actively involved, beginning immediately, in this process," says Bradley.

Alderman Dixon, says that she had held "dozens" of meetings to solicit community input on the TIF since taking office in February. She emphasized that she welcomes cooperation from residents.

"I have every intention of forming a TIF advisory committee after the TIF becomes law," said Dixon. There's nothing to oversee right now. There won't even be any money in the TIF for the next 12 months."

Arnold Randall, a CDC commissioner, said that the TIF was crucial to Lawndale's future, and he defended the city's efforts at communicating the plan to residents.

"Lawndale needs tools, and this is a key tool for redevelopment in that community," said Randall. He added, "I think people have worked very hard to communicate. Both aldermen have worked very hard to educate people, but there's a lot of misinformation being spread around out there."

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the TIF had been approved by the city. It was approved by the Community Development Commission, but faces a final vote before the City Council.

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