Austin TIF has done little to revitalize West Side

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Local residents once called the far western stretch of Madison Street the downtown of the West Side.

That was before the race riots and factory closings of the late 1960s sent the area around the thriving commercial corridor into a tailspin of population loss, poverty, crime and blight, Juan-Pablo Velez of the Chicago News Cooperative reported earlier this week.

When the city of Chicago set out more than a decade ago to turn around the crumbling retail district, it created a tax increment financing district along Madison Street from West Garfield Park to the city limit at Austin Avenue.

But halfway through the TIF’s 23-year lifespan, the city has spent only $4.8 million on commercial revitalization projects in the district, and western Madison Street remains a place of struggling retail strips and vacant, decaying blocks.

Criticism of TIFs under former Mayor Richard M. Daley focused largely on his administration’s heavy spending of TIF funds in and around Chicago’s thriving downtown. (Our sister Web site, ChicagoTalks, has reported on this as well.)

But the scant investment along Madison raises a key question not answered by a TIF reform task force created by Mayor Rahm Emanuel: Can the city’s primary development tool reverse decades of economic decline and physical decay in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods?

The Chicago News Cooperative reports that when the city created the Madison-Austin TIF in 1999, the district’s redevelopment blueprint outlined plans for the city to spend $42 million on a mix of public works and private-development subsidies to “re-establish Madison Street as an active and vibrant commercial district, while accommodating residential and institutional uses where appropriate.”

Between 2002 and 2010, the Daley administration spent $4.8 million in TIF money on commercial revitalization projects, largely on small-business grants and streetscaping along Madison Street from Pulaski Road to Kostner Avenue. That was less than half the $12.3 million collected from the district as a property-tax increment.

During that period, the city also spent $48 million in the district to build DePriest Elementary School and renovate Austin High School as part of Modern Schools Across Chicago, an ambitious school construction program Daley launched in 2006. The construction was paid for by a citywide bond issue, not TIF funds, though payments on the bonds will be made from TIF funds raised in Madison-Austin and other districts.

Aside from the schools, the Madison-Austin TIF district saw only minor new construction. A nearby TIF district in North Austin received a $3.2 million TIF subsidy for a Coca Cola distribution facility – AustinTalks reported on that project earlier this year – creating a few jobs in the area. No commercial development along Madison Street received help on a similar scale.

To read the rest of the Chicago News Cooperative’s story, including comments from 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, click here.

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