Chanting “TIf money’s our money,” and carrying signs that read “Corporate Welfare is breaking Chicago’s back,” more than 100 protesters marched through downtown Chicago yesterday to protest the allocation of $29.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF) for a corporate tower in the West Loop.
“This money is cut right off the top of our property taxes, and we need to reinvest it in areas other than the Loop,” said Rita Pope, a resident of Evanston who was born in North Lawndale. Pope volunteers for the Organization of the North East and helped pass out flyers during Tuesday’s protest.
“There are a lot of vacant lots (in North Lawndale), there are a lot of properties that have depreciated over the years, but it is still a vibrant community that needs attention and can be revived through tax increment financing,” she said. “When we talk about the growth of the city, it’s not just about one area, all areas need to be addressed.”
The 45-story tower River Point is set to be developed at 444 West Lake Street, overlooking the Chicago River from east of Canal Street and north of Lake Street. The project is still in its preliminary phases, but developers have stated construction should begin before year’s end and tenant occupancy will begin in early 2016. Conditions of the TIF funding, originally designed to promote development in blighted areas, call for a 1.5-acre riverfront public park in addition to the tower’s 900,000 square feet of leasable space.
Primary investors for River Point are real estate firms Hines Interests L. P. and Ivanhoé Cambridge, which kicked in $300 million. The project is being developed on land co-owned by local business leader Larry Levy, whose restaurant company Levy Restaurants owns Tuesday’s protesters’ primary target, Fulton’s On The River.
The demonstration began at 11am at Merchandise Mart and protesters marched to the high-end restaurant for an 11:30 a.m. rally. The demonstration was originally intended for Fulton’s patio on the Chicago River, but after an employee called the Chicago Police Department, it was relocated to the sidewalk of North LaSalle Street.
“We’re here today because we are against our elected officials giving our tax dollars to wealthy developers, like Larry Levy,” said Brown. “Levy owns that restaurant (Fulton’s) and he owns hundreds of restaurants all across the nation. Does it look like Mr. Levy needs $29.5 million?”
In September 2007, the year after Compass Group PLC acquired 49 percent of the company, Crain's Chicago Business reported Levy Restaurants’ annual revenues were $690 million.
In addition to accusing the city of having a downtown-centric focus for TIF funding, many protesters also called for the elimination of tax increment financing districts all together. In light of Cook County Clerk David Orr’s July announcement that 2011 saw a drop in property tax collection in the districts, largely due to falling property values, many of Tuesday’s protesters chanted the need to “shut it down.” LaSalle Central TIF district, where River Point is located, generated zero revenue in 2011, according to the city’s annual TIF District Summary report.
“Sound business doctrine tells you that when your investment is providing no return, shut it down,” said Rodney Pruitt, a member of Chicago Teachers Union and resident of the Near West Side community, during his speech at the rally. Pruitt questioned who would be affected “when there’s not enough money for these projects.”
“Lining corporate pockets with tax payer money is a way of life in this city,” he said.
Organized by Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of community and labor groups focused on economic and racial justice in Chicago, the rally saw representatives from Action Now, the Organization of the North East, the Illinois Hunger Coalition, the Chicago Teachers Union and Latinos Organized for Justice.
“In our neighborhoods, $29.5 million means safer parks, better schools and safer streets ... If we had $29.5 million in Englewood, we could set up job training, facilities for youth and, above all, a safer environment,” said Charles Brown, a 43-year resident of Englewood and board member of Action Now, during his speech at the rally outside Fulton’s On The River. “The TIF money spent in Englewood would definitely reduce crime and provide more jobs, which are badly needed in that area.”
Here's more from the rally:
Neither a representative from Levy Restaurants nor Ald. Brendan Rielly (42nd), whose ward includes River Point and the LaSalle Central TIF district, could be reached for comment.