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SSA Rules Change Allows Lakeview Chamber to Pursue Park Space Idea – UPDATE

By Jordan Graham | Thursday, January 26, 2012

The green space at 3400 N. Lincoln Ave. proposed last fall may not be dead yet. Concept drawing courtesy of SSA 27.

When the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce was denied the ability to purchase an empty lot at the corner of Roscoe Street and Lincoln Avenue, 3400 N. Lincoln Ave, in October 2011, some assumed that the merchant group’s goal of building a park at that location had died and that condominiums would eventually occupy the site.

That assumption may prove premature.

A recent change to the city ordinance that establishes Special Service Area 27 (SSA 27), a taxing district administered by the Lakeview Chamber as an economic development tool, now gives the group the ability to contribute to the development of open space.

“We added things like ‘enhanced land-use oversight,’” said Heather Way, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce. “That would allow us not to purchase the property, but maybe contribute to the development of the property.”

Though Way stated adamantly that the chamber has no immediate plans for how and when it will use its new powers, the group’s discretion of what projects it will or will not assist could influence the development of local land, including what eventually happens to the still unsold lot at Roscoe and Lincoln.

The Lakeview Chamber, whose board of directors overlaps with SSA 27′s commissioners, officially began pursing acquisition of the 3400 N. Lincoln Ave. lot in September 2011. The group hoped to purchase the land for about $1 million from the Chicago Transit Authority during a November auction. Since the SSA’s entire 2011 budget amounted to only a little more than half that amount, the group planned to partner with Openlands, a foundation that promotes open space. In a complex transaction, Openlands volunteered to buy the Lincoln Avenue site, transfer the land to a new non-profit group created and controlled by the Lakeview Chamber and then wait for the chamber and SSA to raise private funds to pay back the loan.

Additionally, since SSA 27’s establishing ordinance prevents it from owning property, the chamber sought city permission to reconstitute the tax district a year early to alter the ordinance’s language.

This plan was met with immediate opposition from Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who said the area might benefit more from a “transit oriented”, property-tax generating development and questioned whether SSA 27’s attempt to purchase the land fell outside its stated mission of creating, promoting and sustaining local business.

A month after announcing its intentions, Lakeview Chamber’s efforts were squashed almost entirely when Waguespack spoke at a City Council Finance Committee hearing, openly opposing allowing SSAs to purchase property without first analyzing the broader implications of such a policy.

“I basically said, ‘What’s going to happen if we allow SSAs to purchase property?’” Waguespack told Roscoe View Journal at the time. “We’re basically going to allow people to outbid others by using the SSA’s money…. Until we have this broader conversation, I put in a substitute amendment to limit [SSA 27's ability to buy land].”

As the SSA’s home alderman, Waguespack was able to deny SSA 27′s proposed rules change by evoking City Council custom. At the same time, he supported SSA 27′s normal reconstitution at the end of last year and did not oppose City Council’s approval of the taxing district’s new powers to help fund local development and construction.

According to Way, the SSA will use its new tools to perform more parking studies, traffic studies and transit improvement studies in coming years.

During the reconstitution process, SSA 27 also expanded its boundaries to include the 1700 block of Belmont Avenue and the 2800 block of Lincoln Avenue.

The Lakeview Chamber currently lists some of its SSA services as daily sidewalk cleanings, façade improvement incentives, tracking commercial vacancies, access to a “successful shopping rebate program,” and procuring and maintaining street benches, bike racks, trash cans and planters.

The property at 3400 N. Lincoln Ave. was auctioned through a competitive bid process in November, but a CTA representative said no “responsible bids” were offered and the property has still not been sold. The CTA is currently in the process of preparing to rebid the property in the coming months.

There are currently 44 SSAs in Chicago with annual budgets ranging from $17,000 to $3.7 million. In total, Chicago SSAs controlled more than $23 million in 2011.

UPDATE (1/27/12): Lakeview Chamber Executive Director Heather Way asked to make some clarifications to the original article:

“We didn’t consider the park space purchasing until July,” while the reconstitution plan begin in November 2010, says Way.

Also: “Due to the reconstitution process, we will not receive any funding until the property tax bills come in October 2012,” so the Chamber does not have funds to pursue the park or any other new capital projects.

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