University’s Douglas did not justify TIF cash

To the Editor:

I read, with interest, the letter of Derek Douglas, the University of Chicago’s vice president for Civic Engagement, in which he defended the $23.4 million dollar Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy the university received for its Harper Court project.

According to Mr. Douglas, the purpose of the Harper Court project was “to bring new retail activity and new economic activity to the neighborhood.” Apparently, his point is that it was worthwhile to spend $23.4 million in TIF funds — including $11.7 million that should have gone to the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools — in order to build a university office building.

Yes, there is retail in the Harper Court development. However, much of this consists of national chains relocating within the neighborhood (the L.A. Fitness facility on 47th Street is scheduled to close next year). And yes, we did get two new national retailers — Chipotle and Ulta — though we lost local businesses Park 52 and Dixie Kitchen. Was it sensible to spend $11.7 million that should have gone to the public schools to do this?

Certainly, the university has its own interest in developing the neighborhood, and this has driven the university’s acquisitions along 53rd Street. While the university’s interests and those of the neighborhood coincide in many respects, this does not mean there is a mutual interest in taking money from the public schools to facilitate the university’s plans. Moreover, it would seem that properly funded public schools would make this neighborhood more attractive to university personnel.

According to Mr. Douglas, “among the university’s contributions [to the project] were the donation of a property that had cost the university $10 million, the university’s credit rating, and years of time and expertise.” However, the university did not “contribute” the property — it bought the property and has kept control over it, like its other real estate acquisitions in the neighborhood. Also, part of this property is a former city parking lot, which the city sold to the university for the nominal price of a dollar.

As for the university’s credit rating, it would seem that the university — with its multi-billion dollar endowment — had the wherewithal to build its office building without any subsidy at the expense of the public schools. Concerning the university’s time and expertise, it would seem that the university has been able to devote its time and expertise — without any TIF subsidy — to its other development projects.

Mr. Douglas offers a list of charitable and civic endeavors undertaken by the university, apparently as a justification for the subsidy the university received at the expense of our public school students. Are we to understand that when the university gives with one hand, it takes away with the other?

Conspicuously omitted from Mr. Douglas’s defense of the university’s TIF subsidy is any reference to how this subsidy did anything to implement the original objectives of the 53rd Street TIF, to provide for: (a) local schools; (b) street improvements (such as Clean Slate); and (c) parking, in our already congested neighborhood. This is consistent with the university’s policy of ignoring — if not undermining —these community objectives.

Marc Lipinski