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Uptown is poised to become Chicago’s next great neighborhood, with one

of the city’s best entertainment districts, an expanse of lakefront, and a


supply of condominiums and luxury apartments at still-affordable prices.

But a number of factors threaten to destroy the progress that Uptown has
made, not the least of which is the proposed construction of 178 affordable
housing units in two towers on a 6-acre tract of prime real estate in the
center of the neighborhood. Couple that with a summer of extraordinarily
high gang violence and a still-unsuccessful battle with clearing the streets
of longtime resident, the homeless and mentally ill, and Uptown is watching
its dreams come crashing down.

Wilson Yard, called “the latest renaissance of the Uptown neighborhood” by


developer Holsten Management Company, lies in the heart of Uptown,
bounded by Broadway Street, Wilson and Montrose avenues and the CTA
red line tracks. Originally slated to become an economic engine for a bleak
commercial district, the project was touted as a mixed-use development
that included a movie theater, an 180,000-square-foot Target store and
30,000 square feet of other retail, in addition to housing.

The project now includes just the two towers of housing, an Aldi store and,
maybe, a Target.

“The plan has been so drastically changed that people in this community
became so concerned that this project was going off the track,” said
Katharine Boyda, the president of the Uptown Neighborhood Council.

“What happened to the vibrant retail? This was supposed to revitalize the
community and bring in investment,” said Boyda, who lives no more than
50 feet from the construction site.

Because Wilson Yard is part of a larger tax increment financing district, $52
million of the project’s cost is subsidized by the city, about a third of the
project’s $150-million price tag.

More than 2,000 residents signed a petition to halt construction at the site,
where the Aldi already sits. Fix Wilson Yard, a citizens group created to
protest the development, launched a campaign to put pressure on Holsten
and Ald. Helen Shiller (46th). Through neighborhood presentations, protests
and letter-writing campaigns, the group called for a reconsideration of the
development plan and “a competitive process to identify the highest and
best use for the TIF property.”

Officials ignored the public outcry, Boyda said, and last week Fix Wilson
Yard filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming TIF abuses and violations of
the Open Meeting Law.

“Initially, the community was promised a vibrant mixed-use development


which included movie theaters, a variety of retail, restaurants and mixed-
income residential,” said Molly Phelan, president of Fix Wilson Yard and
property tax attorney, in a press release. “Now, despite huge public outcry,
the Wilson Yard development has morphed into a financial black hole
pumping millions of taxpayer’s dollars into a development that lacks key
elements.”

Thomas Ramsdell, the attorney representing Fix Wilson Yard, said the
case could lead to more accountability for the use of TIFs, what he called
“the mayor’s slush fund.”

“This is the first of its kind in that citizens are taking on the City of Chicago
over TIFs,” Ramsdell said. “This is a landmark challenge and it’s coming at
a time when TIFs are under serious review.”

The lawsuit claims the 2001 creation of the Wilson Yard TIF district violates
the Illinois TIF Act’s “but for” test.

“Without the TIF money, would economic resurgence take place? Basically,
‘but for’ the TIF funds, would development happen?” said Boyda.

Further, TIF districts must be blighted or conservation areas, titles that do


not apply to the Wilson Yard district, the lawsuit claims.

Tom Tresser, a Lincoln Park resident and activist for TIF reform, signed
the Fix Wilson Yard petition because he supports standing up against
rampant TIF abuses.
“They’ve got to do it. There’s no other way. The city isn’t reviewing this and
the planning commission is appointed by Mayor Daley, the City Council
doesn’t say boo to Mayor Daley. It’s up to the citizen groups to do it,”
Tresser said.

In 2007, Chicago had 155 TIF districts, totaling more almost $560 million in
TIF revenue, according to the Cook County Clerk’s 2007 Taxpayers’ TIF
Revenue Summary.

“It takes a lot of work to go into the community and explain this financing to
people but it needs to be done. It’s a challenge. It makes people’s eyes
glaze over but it’s their money and people care about their money,” Tresser
said.

But on the ground in Uptown, the real problem is fear of what mid-rise
towers of low-income housing will do to the community.

“Uptown stands to be one of the best neighborhoods in Chicago,” said Ari


Bendersky, a three-year resident of the area. “We love the neighborhood,
the diversity, we’re right by the lake and the park but I echo the opinion of
thousands of residents when I say Helen Shiller is the sole reason that
Uptown continues to have the lack of turnaround, the high rates of crime,
drugs, murders, shootings, gangs.”

“Wilson Yard is the pinnacle of her inappropriate use of power,” Bendersky


added. “It’s modeled after Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes, where
it’s proven not to work. Instead of the progress Uptown was seeing, it’s
going to turn into a ghetto.”

Jason Goulah, a new resident to the neighborhood and an assistant


professor at DePaul University, believes restructuring the plan could mean
a revitalized Broadway commercial corridor.

“The mixed use Wilson Yard project is, I strongly believe, a linchpin to
revitalizing the Uptown area, particularly in this strapped economy. I think
the area would greatly benefit in manifold ways from a Target, theaters,
shops and integrated housing. Adding only low income housing is limiting
and suggests, I'm afraid, further crime in that area,” Goulah said in an
email.

But affordable housing activists argue that the glut of condo conversions
left a need for housing available to low-income residents. Foreclosures by
landlords have only exacerbated a problem that was already becoming a
crisis.

“Across the North Side, thousands of rental units were converted to


condos, at least 15,000 people displaced in recent years. Ironically, many
of those condo conversions now stand vacant. Wages have not kept pace
with housing costs,” said Fran Tobin, the chairman of the steering
committee of Northside Action for Justice. “A full-time worker needs to earn
$18.10 and hour to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Chicago.
Huge numbers of people and families, long-time residents and neighbors,
are already paying far more than an affordable burden for rent.”

Tobin said communities must increase the supply of housing that is


affordable to households below the median income and use what leverage
us available to increase wages on the lower end, which he said will make
housing more affordable.

“The kind of privately-owned, publicly-assisted housing that I understand is


being developed for the Wilson Yard is a model with a long history of
working well, all across the city and country. Experts know that the key to
well-managed housing is good management, and has little to do with
income levels of the residents,” he said.

Shiller prefers the term affordable to describe the housing, not low-income.

“The [Chicago Housing Authority] won’t rent to people who earn more than
30 percent of median [Chicago area] income. This project will rent to
people with 30 percent, 50 percent and 80 percent of median income,” she
told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006.

Calls to Peter Holsten, the president of Holsten Management Corporation,


and Helen Shiller’s office were not returned.
Media outlets reported last month that Target was definitely coming to the
site but there’s been no official confirmation. With only the housing officially
on the docket, some Uptown residents aren’t willing to wait around and see
what the developer decides.

“We are at this point not because we wanted to do it but because the city at
every turn refused to do anything. We had no choice,” said Boyda. “No
matter what we did, the city was going to say, ‘We don’t care about you or
your community.’ What this has become is completely contrary to what was
supposed to happen and I have to assume the vibrant, thriving retail will
never happen. Someone had to take the lead and say, ‘This can’t keep
going on.’”

Bendersky is convinced the Wilson Yard project can be fixed, putting the
community back on track to becoming the next must-be place for Chicago.

“I made an investment in this neighborhood because I can believe in this


neighborhood. This is not just for rich white people because that’s not what
Uptown is about. We need to have an advisory board of both residents and
a diverse group of developers who can create a plan that works for
everyone,” he said.