Questions still loom on Lincoln Yards and TIF

Family-supporting jobs could be threatened in a longtime manufacturing district, while many issues remain unresolved following the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the Lincoln Yards TIF district.

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image of Lincoln Yards development in Chicago, IL. Taken January 23, 2019.

Photo by April Alonso

A judge denied the challenge by community groups concerned with the legality of a new tax increment finance district for the Lincoln Yards development leaving much still in question, including thousands of jobs.

A  longtime scrap metal recycler next door to the proposed Lincoln Yards megadevelopment has confirmed that it’s moving from its historic site in the old North Branch industrial corridor. But there’s still no news about any plan to save the thousands of living wage jobs that remain in the area and are possibly threatened by encroaching residential development.

It’s one item on the agenda of the city’s incoming planning commissioner, former Charlottesville Mayor Maurice Cox, who most recently was Detroit’s top planning official. 

Meanwhile, a judge has dismissed a lawsuit by community groups challenging the legality of a new tax increment finance district for the Lincoln Yards development.

As announced months ago, General Iron Industries will move from its current location at 1909 N. Clifton Ave. to the former Republic Steel site on the Southeast Side by the end of 2020. Last week Mayor Lori Lightfoot rescinded a last-minute deal by the previous administration to give the company three years to move.

Ald. Michele Smith has proposed replacing the current scrap yard with a park, and Jonathan Snyder of North Branch Works, which supports industrial employers in the area, thinks that’s a fine idea. A park wouldn’t conflict with current employers in the area, Snyder said. Those include a metal fabricator, a tannery, a concrete plant, warehouses, and an incubator for manufacturing entrepreneurs. 

But Snyder is concerned that planning for the area — including the $1.3 billion Lincoln Yards TIF — hasn’t taken the value of all those jobs into account. “We need to have a very detailed, robust conversation about how we manage change in the area,” he said.

“We don’t need a second downtown — we don’t need a Loop 2.0,” Snyder said. “If you’re going to invest that amount of money, let’s talk about what kind of jobs we’re supporting.” Current employers provide family-supporting jobs to people from across the city who may not have had access to higher education. Swapping those for a bunch of corporate headquarters does nothing to address development and employment disparities in the city, he said.

A major issue is transportation planning, according to Snyder. Most of the TIF is set to go to infrastructure to support automobiles — probably a futile effort to manage a huge influx into an already congested area. He’d like more discussion of light rail and bus rapid transit. “We should consider that now, before we have 6,000 new rental units,” he said.

“We’d like to see the area continue its legacy as a job center and business incubator, to continue supporting 21st-century manufacturing and living wage jobs,” he said.

Across the river, Goose Island is the last of three planned manufacturing districts in the North Branch corridor. The other two were legacies of the Harold Washington administration backed for two decades by Mayor Richard M. Daley and were wiped out by Rahm Emanuel — despite city research showing their effectiveness — in order to open the North Branch to high-rise residential development.

Business owners and other stakeholders recently held a Goose Island Summit to discuss ways of bolstering the area’s identity, Snyder said.

In Cook County Circuit Court, meanwhile, Judge Neil Cohen dismissed a lawsuit Monday by Grassroots Collaborative and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education challenging the Lincoln Yards TIF. 

Cohen ruled the groups lacked standing to challenge the City Council’s approval of the TIF while voicing support for the groups’ campaign against TIF. Unfortunately, that leaves unanswered the serious issues raised by the lawsuit, including whether the city manipulated data to qualify for the TIF. If, as the groups alleged, the city violated the law in setting up the TIF, how can it be held to account? There also seem to have been ethical lapses in moving the proposal through the council.

Other questions also remain — including whether, as some have hinted, the Lightfoot administration will take steps to rein in the Lincoln Yards TIF. In addition, the mayor has endorsed the findings of a recent report by the city’s inspector general tracking implementation of recommendations by Emanuel’s 2011 TIF Reform Task Force.

The IG found that the Emanuel administration fell short in incorporating TIF planning into a citywide economic development plan and capital budget; in increasing accountability for recipients of TIF subsidies who fail to meet commitments; and in establishing a functioning oversight panel.

According to the IG, the city has done nothing to set performance standards for TIF districts and projects or to hold regular strategic reviews.

As a candidate, Lightfoot strongly backed a TIF reform ordinance focused on the key issues in the lawsuit — the “blight” standard and the “but-for” test — which her administration has so far successfully opposed. 

Her transition team report called for “refocus[ing] priorities for future [TIF] districts around areas with the highest employment disparities.” But with TIF revenues in Chicago soaring — up by $180 million to $841 million this year — and a gaping budget deficit, existing TIF districts are likely candidates for reform too. 

Last year, then-County Clerk David Orr called for “a complete review of all existing TIFs and a reduction in the number and size of TIFs” to “prevent an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.”

TIF reform is likely to be a component of Lightfoot’s budget plan next month — but how far will it go?