By Igor Studenkov | For The Bugle
The village of Niles board of trustees voted unanimously to approve the proposed Gross Point-Touhy Tax Increment Financing District, which will cover the Touhy Triangle and some nearby lots.
According to the approved plan, the village will be able to use the money on building rehabilitation and other improvements, public infrastructure improvements, and job training programs. Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo described the TIF as the way to improve an area in which the potential hasn’t been fully realized.
But the TIF wasn’t without critics. Former trustees Chris Hanusiak and Louella Preston spoke out against it, arguing that it would place a burden on taxpayers. They also argued that, unlike the previous TIFs the village approved, the Gross Point-Touhy TIF wasn’t geared toward any concrete plans.
Hanusiak also argued against the possibility that the TIF would be used to fund repairs to the Leaning Tower of Niles, arguing that its value as a tourist attraction was overrated and that fixing it would be a waste of taxpayer money.
The Gross Point – Touhy TIF has been in the works for the past two years. It will cover the entirety of the so-called Touhy Triangle – an area bound by Gross Point Road, Touhy Avenue and Lehigh Avenue. The TIF also includes two lots between Gross Point Road and Caldwell Avenue, 21 lots to the west of the triangle between Touhy and Jarvis avenues and a few lots west of the northern tip of the triangle.
When a TIF district is created, the property tax levies inside it are frozen. When the levies increase, the extra money that would normally go to the taxing bodies gets deposited into the TIF fund. Once the TIF district expires, the tax rates return to normal.
While the Gross Point TIF redevelopment plan doesn’t mention any specific project, there are plans in place for the Touhy Triangle. In August 2014, the village unveiled a “vision” for the area that included a business-class hotel, expanded park around the Leaning Tower of Niles, a convention center and a Metra station.
Since the plan was introduced, Niles officials repeatedly emphasized that the “vision” didn’t represent a concrete plan. Furthermore, under the proposed new zoning code, the Touhy Triangle would be rezoned from manufacturing district to entertainment mixed-use district. Permitted uses would include “art studios, entertainment facilities, bars, restaurants and offices.”
Because the zoning code would not be retroactive, the change wouldn’t affect the area’s current industrial and wholesale businesses, but it would affect any new development.
While he was a trustee, Hanusiak repeatedly expressed reservations about the Gross Point-Touhy TIF proposal and the Touhy Triangle “vision.” During the public comment period, he urged the board to vote against creating the TIF.
“This board will be voting on a ‘vision,’ which is not really a plan,” he said. “Bee Sales [wholesales company] and other companies invested millions. We have vibrant manufacturing areas and we’re going to be taking them off the tax rolls.”
Hanusiak noted that a TIF was used to help fund Leaning Tower repairs before, when the board established the Leaning Tower TIF in 1993– and argued that Niles didn’t have much to show for it.
“This is the second time TIF money is being spent on something that won’t generate property taxes or sales taxes,” he said.
He also said he felt that when it came to TIFs, Niles was following Chicago’s bad example – to its own peril. “Chicago is 32 percent TIFed,” he said. “Do we want to be like Chicago? Do we want to have a junk credit rating?”
Preston, who lost her seat on the board during 2013 election, acknowledged that she voted to approve three TIFs. But what made her votes different, she argued, was that each TIF was “project-based.” Indeed, most of the TIFs the village created in the past were geared toward specific projects, including the then new civic plaza, the Leaning Tower rehabilitation, the redevelopment of Niles College site into condominiums and the construction of new Niles Police Department building.
Preston also argued that the new TIF would lead to tax increases.
“If you pass this TIF, there are 10 taxing bodies that are going to raise your taxes,” she said. “Don’t vote for this TIF. Don’t raise mine or anybody’s taxes for 23 years.”
Preston complained that neither the governing boards of the Niles Public Library or the Niles Park District looked at the proposed TIF, mentioning trustee Joe LoVerde, who serves as the Park District’s Executive Director, and Trustee Danette Matyas, who sits on the library board, by name.
LoVerde addressed the board as a Niles resident, responding to both Hanusiak and Preston. He argued that building deterioration along Touhy Avenue has been documented in the Gross Point-Touhy TIF qualification documents. LoVerde also called out Preston on her voting record.
“You voted for three TIFs, so you voted three times to raise property taxes on us,” he said.
When the Bugle asked Preston about the accusation, she said that all of the TIFs she approved served some public good.
“I was concerned about tax raise, but it was used for the benefit of all residents of Niles,” she said, adding that she was not convinced that Gross Point-Touhy TIF would benefit anyone expect private businesses.
Shortly before the meeting wrapped up, Przybylo defended the TIF, saying that it was an important for village economy. “This is to stimulate the economy,” he said. “What we have is old and decaying.”