Wilson Yard backers defend expansion

The Wilson Yard construction site | Credit: Adeshina O. Emmanuel Jr.

In a tense meeting rife with outbursts and muttered retorts, Alderman Helen Shiller defended her plan to nearly double the Wilson Yard TIF district's budget and pledged the project will benefit the public.

Opponents questioned whether TIF backers have been overly secret in putting together the expansion plan, and said they were concerned tax money allocated to the project might ultimately be frittered away.

TIF districts are established to fund improvements in areas suffering from blight. The TIF diverts a portion of property taxes generated in the district to redevelopment.

Shiller's amendment would place five additional pieces of land within the Wilson Yard district and increase the TIF's budget from $58 million to $112 million.

Those properties -- three vacant lots on the west side of Sheridan Road near Montrose, a former Salvation Army building on Broadway, and an adjacent parking lot -- would be redeveloped as a green technology center, says Shiller, (D-46).

It would specialize in hydroponics and aquaponics, with an educational component for preschoolers, all the way to the university level.  The center would cultivate fish and food for the local community.

“I would really like to see a market there that sold the things that were being created there,” said Shiller.

Molly Phelan, president of Fix Wilson Yard, a group that is suing to stop the development, said she doesn't trust the city to stick to that spending plan.

“The problem is [that] you can change these line items and move the money from different area to different area,” says Phelan  “There are concerns in the community about where this money could be used.”

“I’m really confused as to how you’re getting all the way up to another over $50 million dollars for these projects,” Phelan told Shiller and other meeting attendees.

46th ward resident Katherine Boyda accused Ald. Shiller of making decisions “behind closed doors.”

“I am asking you alderman Shiller, how you will step up as a responsible alderman and create an open public, inclusive process that allows this community to make informed decisions on how that money will be spent, and not come to us and tells us—this is how we want to do it, take it or leave it,” Boyda said.

Shiller responded, saying,  “If you are asking for us to maintain an ongoing dialogue about [Wilson Yard TIF district projects] as they are being considered, I have no problem with that.”

Uptown resident Lindsey Simon said the city should focus on the basics, like crime prevention.

“We have a crime issue, and I didn’t once hear you mention crime, or gangs, or drugs,” Simon says.  “Building a green center is awesome, but it seems like putting organic frosting on a cupcake with mold on it.”