Lincoln Yards TIF district's Amazon past and fast-track future

A city-hosted public meeting this week on the proposed Lincoln Yards development on the near North Side will no doubt raise many questions on the part of Chicago residents.

A question that residents might well ask: Why is Lincoln Yards linked to a proposed tax-increment financing (TIF) district?

First, some background: Lincoln Yards' 50-plus acres would straddle the Chicago River's North Branch, north and south of Cortland Ave. According to developer Sterling Bay, the complex will house 4,000 to 5,000 residential units, and will include a "minimum 50 percent" level of commercial use.

City officials propose to place the entire Lincoln Yards development inside a new TIF zone: the Cortland/Chicago River TIF district. The city is pushing TIF to fund "[m]ajor infrastructure improvements," which it says "are needed to transition the area to a modern, mixed-use business corridor."

Existing TIFs
Existing TIF districts north of North Ave.
Source: city of Chicago

The Lincoln Yards footprint already overlaps two existing TIF districts: the North Branch (North) and North Branch (South) districts. But, according to Chip Hastings, a managing deputy commissioner in the Chicago Dept. of Planning and Development, the latter two zones would "be de-TIF'd in one action" if and when the new district is approved.

Lincoln Yards' story goes back to at least 2014, when Finkl Steel vacated its long-time industrial campus at Cortland Ave. and the Chicago River.

Less than two years later, in 2016, developer Sterling Bay bought the sprawling Finkl site, which it then razed. Sterling Bay would go on to acquire neighboring parcels of land, including a huge municipal vehicle-maintenance facility that the city vacated.

Sterling Bay announced that it'd develop its land around the Finkl site into a massive residential/commercial complex called Lincoln Yards.

In autumn of 2017, on-line behemoth Amazon revealed its search for a second headquarters, called HQ2. The city of Chicago promptly announced its bid to host Amazon, with Lincoln Yards as one of a half-dozen potential HQ2 homes in Chicago.

The city, Cook County, and the state of Illinois collaborated in the bid, which reportedly provided over $2 billion in tax breaks and other financial incentives to Amazon.

On the heels of the city's bid, Sterling Bay sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a 90-page "supplement" that proclaimed, "We believe Lincoln Yards offers Amazon the ideal HQ2 location."

In the package, which was not publicly released, Sterling Bay also told Amazon executives that the city would pass legislation "in early 2018 to expand and extend existing TIF districts including Lincoln Yards."

The package boasted that property taxes collected by the TIF district "will yield in excess of $1 billion available for investment in infrastructure . . . and reimbursement to Amazon."

Cortland/Chicago River TIF district: Sterling Bay vs. city of Chicago
Sterling Bay's 2017 outline of a future Cortland/Chicago River TIF district matches the one proposed a year later
by the city, with the exception of a two-block parcel west of Elston Ave. Sources: Hightail.com, city of Chicago

The document included an outline of the TIF district that Sterling Bay expected—the borders of which ended up being almost exactly the ones proposed by the city a year later.

Recently, the city dropped a clue about its TIF timing. In a Nov. 4 piece, Crain's Chicago Business reported that planning department head David Reifman hoped to win final approval of the Cortland/Chicago River TIF district (among others) by May of 2019—the same month in which Mayor Rahm Emanuel would leave office.

In the Crain's piece, Reifman named the Lincoln Yards development as one of several that "is stalled and has been stalled for some time," needing tax-increment financing to proceed.

At the city's first public meeting on the TIF district, on Nov. 14, planning department officials revealed a TIF implementation schedule that culminates in city council approval by April, 2019—in line with their boss's stated goal.

In the meeting's Q&A session, audience members objected to the four-month TIF timeline.

TIF timeline
Timeline presented by city officials at the Nov. 14 meeting on the
Cortland/Chicago River TIF district. Photo: Dave Glowacz

Several audience members pointed out that Sterling Bay's plan for Lincoln Yards has not been finalized—and an updated plan wouldn't even be made public until a subsequent meeting, on Nov. 29.

"How in the world can you submit the [TIF proposal] without knowing the scope or scale of what you need to plan for, or having anything more than ballpark estimates?" said North Side resident Scott Nations. "Why are you in a rush when the process is backwards?"

Taking some of the heat for the city's TIF pursuit was Ald. Brian Hopkins, in whose Second Ward the TIF district and Lincoln Yards reside.

At the start of the Nov. 14 public meeting, Hopkins told audience members that they'd have "many more public opportunities to weigh in on this."

He then named the city's half-dozen approval steps that, as the city's presentation would later show, culminated in TIF district approval by April.

After many in the audience questioned what they considered a hasty schedule, Hopkins appeared to backpedal. "That's the Dept. of Planning's time frame—that's not mine," said Hopkins. "I'm willing to take all the time that's necessary."

"This is not a done deal," Hopkins said.

The Lincoln Yards public meeting will take place on Thursday, November 29, 2018, 6 p.m., at 1001 N Crosby St.