Citizen Advocacy Center Applauds Elmhurst Zoning Commission for Its Thoughtful and Comprehensive Denial of Addison Street Private Development / Public Parking Garage Project. Development, Zoning and Planning Committee Should Heed Recommendation.
The Elmhurst Zoning Commission has unanimously rejected a proposal to build a private-public mixed-use building on Addison Street. The now City-owned property has been the subject of much controversy: illegal closed meetings as determined by the Illinois Attorney General, City financing to the developer to purchase the property, and a request for increased building height to accommodate two additional floors for office space (including a private athletic facility) in an already saturated office market – just to name a few.
A civics lesson: The approval process for development projects requiring exceptions to the Zoning Code has three steps: 1) The Elmhurst Zoning and Planning Commission, a group of appointed (non-elected) officials, holds a public hearing wherein the applicant must prove why and how a project meets City standards for conditional use or variance from the Zoning Code; interested parties from the public have an opportunity to submit their opinions about the proposed project for the official record during this hearing; the Zoning Commission then deliberates and issues its specific “findings” and recommendations indicating if the applicant has proved its case; 2) The Zoning Commission’s recommendation then goes to the City’s Development, Planning, and Zoning Committee, a standing Committee of the City Council composed of three Aldermen selected by the Mayor. The DPZ Committee reviews the Commission report and makes a recommendation in turn to the full City Council which has the ultimate vote. The recommendations of both the Zoning Commission and the DPZ Committee are advisory and may be overturned by City Council. A vote of two-thirds of the aldermen then holding office is required to approve a project contrary to the recommendation of the Zoning Commission.
The Citizen Advocacy Center has been opposed to the Addison Street Project, not because we dispute the need for more parking, but rather because the public process around this project has been anti-democratic from the start, resulting in a proposal that was fatally flawed in several respects. While the Zoning Commission was able to consider only the information before it as submitted by the developer and signed off on by the City, we applaud the Commission’s recognition and rejection of the fatally flawed application based on the following:
• The Traffic Study included in the application identified several engineering and safety issues that were not addressed.
• The three buildings identified in the central business district as examples of buildings higher than 45 feet were distinguished individually and collectively as different from the proposed Addison Street project.
• A recent City Consultant report identified excessive unoccupied office space in downtown Elmhurst.
• It was unknown how much public parking would be lost due to a required loading dock, the addition of bike parking, and the revisions needed to accommodate engineering and safety issues, none of which were in the application.
• Safety issues identified as ‘very problematic’ were not addressed related to lot-line to lot-line development, and narrow alleys vis a vis truck/ car/ pedestrian traffic.
• The inability of the City to implement creative new pedestrian amenities in the immediate area if the requested zoning relief were allowed.
The commission further rejected the application on grounds of the plans being, as stated by the developer, “fluid and subject to change.” Approval must be based on what was submitted by the developer and commented on at the public hearing process. Altering or changing the development plan would necessitate a new application and a new public hearing.
The Citizen Advocacy Center asks that the DPZ Committee, and eventually the full City Council, concur with the recommendation of the Zoning Commission: the application as submitted should be unanimously rejected. Furthermore, the Zoning Commission report raises questions about the advisability of going forward with this project even at a building height that does not require zoning consideration.
Executive Director/Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
182 N. York St.
Elmhurst, IL 60126
ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL ISSUES OPINION: CITY OF ELMHURST VIOLATED OPEN MEETINGS ACT AND IS DIRECTED TO IMMEDIATELY RELEASE VERBATIM RECORDING AND CLOSED SESSION MINUTES FOR TWO MEETINGS WHEREIN CITY COUNCIL
INAPPROPRIATELY DISCUSSED DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
Elmhurst City Council members went into executive session on November 19, 2012 to discuss “Selection of a Person to Fill a Public Office,” which in this case was related to selecting an interim mayor. The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to meet in closed session for a limited number of issues. Specific segments of the law are weak in that it allows public bodies to go into closed session on this particular topic and for generally allowing public officials to take a consensus vote in any closed session as long as a ceremonial “final vote” is taken in open session.
That being said, public bodies are not required to go into executive session for any issue and the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is explicit: it declares the necessity for public bodies to conduct their business openly to the fullest extent possible. The purpose is not to cherry-pick exemptions to justify closed door discussions on topics that are, without question, issues of public concern.
The mere appearance of the item on the agenda for closed door discussion is unacceptable. This is especially true given the hyper-politicized environment that will have more than half the council members on the ballot this April for either mayor or alderman. The public deserves to observe, in its entirety, the process of selecting an interim mayor. This includes the discussion about the procedure for how the Council will act as well as the political maneuvering for majority support and the ceremonial speeches prior to the vote.
Just because a government entity can legally do something, should it and is legal compliance with a weak statute good enough to earn the ranking of an open and transparent government? City Council meetings should aspire to more than pro forma activities and our expectations of government should be higher.
Ms. Terry Pastika
Executive Director/ Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
Voter registration requirements posted on Elmhurst's website were more stringent than those listed on DuPage County Election Commission's (DCEC) website and printed materials. A simple email by CAC's voter registrar to the DCEC resulted in a correction in a matter of hours. Want information on how to check your local village or township? Call CAC.
Beyond the Chicago Border:
Ms. Dee Longfellow asked in her 9/27/12 editorial, “Is anyone else offended?” by the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) and Elmhurst College hosting Dr. Dick Simpson of UIC to discuss his latest academic paper on political corruption. The tone was sarcastic musing of why a Chicagoan should come to suburbia to talk about corruption. This is why: Corruption does not stop at the Chicago border. Dr. Simpson is nationally recognized for his vast experience in addressing government issues, both as an insider and a watchdog. He has spent a career documenting the “corruption tax” paid when public officials serve for personal interest rather than the public interest. His sixth report, "Green Grass and Graft: Corruption in the Suburbs" documents convictions beyond Chicago’s borders and offers tangible reform solutions.
CAC was also identified as “the local hot bed of political dirt digging” and an organization that protests indiscriminately. We are an award-winning community legal organization that for 20 years has worked to build democracy by strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. CAC’s work starts in Elmhurst and extends statewide. Our resources are free, our doors are open to the public, and information about CAC is available at www.citizenadvocacycenter.org. The following are a few highlights of CAC’s work in Elmhurst:
1) Protecting First Amendment Free Speech rights via a federal lawsuit and bringing statewide and national media exposure to anti-democratic activity in City Hall. We also worked with District 205 to protect Free Speech rights during public comment (twice);
2) Reforming Illinois’ Tax Increment Financing law based on issues identified in the Elmhurst TIF 3 creation process and helping a community group organize to reduce TIF incentives approved on a TIF 1 project from the initial $5 million plus request to $1.2 million;
3) Questioning finance issues at City Hall. One inquiry led to monies being repaid; and
4) Helping individuals successfully organize. Examples include, placing referenda on the ballot, addressing a gas station leak, helping a local journalist protest the selling of a local paper, and helping organize a march to promote a historic preservation ordinance.
People worldwide are fighting for the freedoms Americans have, yet very few Americans actually engage in the democratic process. If a qualifier for “political dirt digging” and indiscriminate protesting includes teaching people interested in government issues how to successfully use First Amendment freedoms, along with community lawyers enforcing democratic rights, I regard that as a compliment.
Ms. Terry Pastika
Executive Director/ Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
Elmhurst City Council will vote soon to create a 4th Tax Increment Financing District
What May Have Started As A Good Idea Has Degenerated into a Justification for a
Boondoggle and has Become a Corrupt Political Process
What is a TIF district?
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a favorite government tool used to spur economic development in areas identified as legally blighted or underperforming. Elmhurst currently has three TIF districts and is considering a fourth to assist the north side of town.
How do TIF districts work?
City Hall provides developers and businesses with subsidies to lure them into town or to improve existing properties. At the most basic level, when a TIF district is created property tax revenues that are collected over a certain base amount are redirected to City Hall for its exclusive use within the TIF district for a period of 23 - 35 years rather than being distributed to numerous taxing bodies like the school district and park district. The diversion of property tax dollars away from the other taxing bodies and into the TIF district creates a TIF “piggy bank.”
Read the entire commentary.
Read the summary.
City officials site success of previous Tax Districts
By Dan McLeister for The Independent
In speaking against approval of the N. York Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, several citizens stated that market conditions are worse than the first three TIF Districts which City officials used as examples of what could happen with a fourth one.
Stephen Hipskind (4th Ward), chairman of the Finance Committee of City Council, said that property values had tripled or almost tripled in the first three TIF Districts.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC), went beyond market conditions and accused City officials of “turning a good process into a corrupt process and creating a problematic situation. This process looks like gerrymandering properties so Hahn St. properties south of North Ave. can be brought into the N. York TIF Districts of properties along York St. north of North Ave. to Grand Ave. The City is privatizing profit and socializing costs,” the lawyer said in her contention that all property owners in Elmhurst will end up paying for the N. York TIF District.
At the August 6th public hearing, the CAC director also noted that the decision in July by the Joint Review Board of various local taxing bodies “was not an overwhelming endorsement” since representatives from School District 205 and the Elmhurst Park District did not vote for approval. “The Park District and the School District feel like their backs are against the wall and they felt cut out of earlier discussions about the N. York TIF. Now there have been closed door meetings to determine what the payout might be”
(Incremental property tax increases from improvements in a TIF District are kept in a special City fund for up to twenty three years before being released to other local taxing bodies like the School District, which get more than half of the property taxes, and the Park District. Some property tax money was released early in the first TIF District along York St. south of North Ave.)
(District 205 School Board President Jim Collins was in the audience at the August 6th public hearing, but he did not speak during the public comment period.)
In addition to saying that market conditions are different now than during the time the first three TIF Districts were started, resident Tamara Brenner contended that the City “was moving fast” with the N. York TIF District. After City officials mentioned the possibility of a final action vote in two weeks, she noted that the TIF District Act from the state allows up to ninety days for local governments to make a decision.
Also, Brenner said she would like to know about the information behind the assumptions by the consultant to the City that property taxes could grow to $105 million to $150 million in twenty three years. Neither a representative from Kane McKenna nor any City officials gave details about the assumptions.
Finally, Brenner wanted to know how much discussion there had been in City meetings about alternative methods of financing such as a special sales tax district to finance improvements, instead of a TIF District.
Another resident, Craig Nelson, also urged the City to “slow down” and pay off bonds for the first three TIF Districts. “Currently the commercial real estate market is in disarray.”
Mentioning a specific situation, an attorney for the owners of Hamburger Heaven on the southeast corner of North Ave. and York St. noted that his client was concerned about the possible elimination of his business. John Skoubis noted “Hamburger Heaven has been an icon for decades in Elmhurst.”
(It is not clear what would happen to Hamburger Heaven if properties on York St., south of North Ave. including nearby Hahn St. land parcels were voted by the City Council to be included in the N. York TIF District.
The owner of Wendy’s restaurant on the north side of the proposed District, stated that he was against the project because taxes are already too high.
An overall statement was made by resident Claude Pagash. “If the District does not work out, then the public will be stuck paying any City obligations. I don’t’ like the idea of residents being on the hook.”
One resident questioned the validity of the public hearing, considering TIF 4 already was approved in committee last month.
Elmhurst Patch By Carol Kania Morency
Elmhurst may already have three mostly successful tax increment financing districts in town, but that is not enough to convince residents at a Monday public hearing that the city needs a fourth.
The hearing, which is required by law as part of the process for a municipality to create a new TIF, was a chance for residents to have their say about the new redevelopment district slated for a 1.8-mile stretch along North York Road. Most of the speakers were opposed to the project, and they posed many questions to the City Council.
TIF districts freeze assessed property values for local taxing bodies for up to 23 years to encourage redevelopment in areas considered blighted. TIFs generate new revenue through new construction in the TIF district, or if the township assessor increases the assessed value of the properties in the TIF district. The difference between the frozen property value and any new assessment or growth goes into a TIF fund. The city then uses this money to pay for any public improvements or to help finance redevelopment projects in the district.
The proposed new TIF would begin at the Hahn Street property, just south of North Avenue, and continue north to Grand Avenue. It would include the new Mariano's property at York and Industrial Drive, as well as the former Steven's Steakhouse and other vacant businesses.
According to Robert Rychlicki of TIF consultants Kane McKenna and Associates, the equalized assessed valuation for the North York TIF would likely be set at about $32 million. The TIF is projected to generate up to $150 million after $89 million in public and private development.
Rychlicki reviewed the results of the city's three current TIF districts. The City Centre TIF was created in 1986 with an EAV of $21.65 million and in 2011 had an $85.3 million assessed valuation. The Lake Street district began in 1993 with a $4.57 million EAV. In 2011, the same properties recorded a $16 million EAV. And the district at Route 83 and St. Charles Road was created with a $4.35 million EAV in 1996 that grew to a $12 million assessed valuation.
But most of the speakers at the public hearing had serious concerns about a fourth TIF.
“Everybody pays for the TIF,” said Terry Pastika, attorney and executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. “You are privatizing profits and socializing the cost of development.”
Pastika said it was the inclusion of properties south of Interstate 290 that made the project problematic. She accused the city of stretching the district south to North Avenue just to be able to include Hahn Street, which is part of a previous redevelopment project planned by Morningside Group. Morningside, citing a sagging economy, was let out of its obligation to develop Hahn Street earlier this year. Hahn Street currently "lives" in TIF 1 and would be moved to TIF 4, adding 23 years of frozen valuation to the property. TIF 1 is set to expire in nine years.
Resident Tamara Brenner posed a series of questions to the council: Is creating a new TIF district the only way to offer incentives to businesses? Is it a good idea to establish a TIF district in this economy? Why was the city having a public hearing after the Development, Planning and Zoning Committee recommended approval of the TIF at its July 9 meeting?
Brenner also is dismayed at the quick pace of the movement to create the fourth TIF.
“This has moved along as fast as humanly possible under the TIF act,” she said.
The city has to wait at least 14 days after the public hearing to approve the establishment of the district. The DuPage County clerk will set the EAV for the properties after the ordinances creating the North York district are approved.