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$1.3B Lincoln Yards TIF district was a race against the clock, report finds

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A delay could have prevented the megadevelopment from securing massive taxpayer subsidies

An elevated commuter rail station under V-shaped awnings connected to a bike and pedestrian trail. A row of tall buildings is visible in the distance.
The Lincoln Yards TIF district would be used to build infrastructure improvements like a new Metra station.
Sterling Bay/SOM

There was another reason behind the rush to approve the massive Lincoln Yards megaproject other than the pending departure of development-friendly Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this spring. The clock was also ticking to secure $1.3 billion in tax increment financing (TIF) money before updated tax assessments disqualified the project from receiving public subsidies, according to a recent Chicago Tribune investigation.

Based on lower pre-2018 property values, Sterling Bay’s sprawling 55-acre North Branch parcel met the bare minimum state law requirements for blighted land and therefore was still TIF-eligible. If the vote had happened after the revised 2018 assessments were published in June, the Lincoln Yards site wouldn’t have qualified for tax increment financing, the newspaper found.

The Tribune report sheds new light on the push by Sterling Bay and some city officials to fast-track the $6 billion project before the new assessments would take effect. In April, opponents including Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot made calls to slow things down and push back the TIF vote until the new mayoral administration and City Council took office in May.

Emanuel honored his successor’s request, and the vote was delayed—albeit briefly. During that time, Lightfoot negotiated a more substantial commitment from the developer to employ minority- and women-owned construction firms. The Lincoln Yards TIF district passed the city’s Finance Committee and City Council just days later.

Although Lightfoot ultimately backed the deal, some details are still being worked out and are subject to additional oversight. Sterling Bay has the approval to recoup $488 million in upfront costs, but will need to go back before the City Council for the rest of the $1.3 billion.

In the meantime, a coalition of activists is pursuing a lawsuit against Lincoln Yards. It argues that the area is not blighted and that the developer and city failed to prove that redevelopment would not happen without TIF subsidies—a concept commonly known as the “but-for” test.

The TIF district essentially freezes real estate taxes for the vacant site at their prior levels and then reimburses Sterling Bay for fronting the costs of infrastructure improvements with the incremental tax revenue generated by the completed project over the next two decades. TIF money will be used to construct bridges over the Chicago River, an eastward extension of The 606 trail, a new Metra station, and a realignment of the problematic Elston-Armitage-Ashland intersection.

When complete, the 14.5 million-square-foot Lincoln Yards development says it would bring for 23,000 full-time jobs, 6,000 residential units, and 21 acres of park space in the former industrial corridor between Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

Last month, Lincoln Yards opened new publicly-accessible soccer pitches near Wabansia and Throop dubbed Fleet Fields. The riverfront development’s first new buildings will be office towers slated to rise near the C.H. Robinson headquarters at 1515 W. Webster Avenue. More office, hotel, residential, and retail space will follow.