LINCOLN SQUARE — With several major construction projects coming to fruition in 2014 and still others set to break ground, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) finds himself in the enviable position of managing a construction boomlet.
A good problem to have, many would argue. Yet the first-term alderman has taken his share of flak for using Tax Increment Financing money to fund a number of those developments, having run for office in 2011 on a platform of TIF reform.
"There's a lot of people — Johnny-come-latelys to my campaign — who decided who I was," Pawar said during an interview with DNAinfo Chicago.
"I still believe we should retire TIFs in seven to 10 years," he said. "But you can't just flip a switch, particularly when funds are tied to works in progress or still paying for developments like North Center's Martha Washington senior housing complex."
In the absence of a citywide, centralized capital plan — something Pawar favors — TIF money is one of the few tools at the alderman's disposal when it comes to controlling development in his ward.
Unless a zoning change is required, aldermen often exert little influence over private sector projects (like Walgreens in Albany Park), nor do they have much say over landlords' lease agreements with tenants — witness Italian restaurant La Bocca Della Verita losing its home after 25 years in Lincoln Square.
"You can't interfere," he said.
Early on, Pawar decided that the way to raise property values and attract desirable businesses to his ward was to shore up and "promote the heck out of our neighborhood schools."
"You can jump-start economic development by investing in schools," he said.
To that end, Pawar has liberally funneled TIF dollars toward schools and other public entities, including Sulzer Library and Welles Park.
Although he secured $10 million in state dollars for an annex at Bell Elementary, the alderman has all but drained the Western Avenue TIF district to fund improvements at Clark Park, a playground at McPherson Elementary and, most significantly, a $16.5 million annex at Coonley Elementary paid for solely with TIF money. The additions at Bell and Coonley are on track to open by September, with construction at Coonley placed on an accelerated timeline.
The massive outlay comes in the wake of school closures and CPS budget cuts, all of which have hit neighborhood schools hard across the city.
"I have people telling me all the time that Bell and Coonley, the additions are unfair," Pawar said. "I get it. I'm going to take some heat, but I'm not going to stop doing my job for my constituents. People worked really hard on Bell and Coonley. There are teachers and parents who slaved to raise awareness and money."
In November, Pawar voted against bringing a proposal before the City Council to shift money from TIF accounts to Chicago Public Schools.
The move caught progressives by surprise, given that Pawar had not only signed onto a pledge to use TIF surpluses for schools, but also because of his reputation as a legislator willing to tackle citywide issues, pushing for an independent budget office and anti-wage theft ordinance. He'll be U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley's guest at Tuesday's State of the Union address in Washington, tapped as an immigration reform advocate.
But when it came to the TIF surplus, Pawar protected the interests of his ward.
"I'd lose the money for Coonley, and I wasn't going to do that," he said.
"Nuance is not something that's appreciated," he said of those who criticized his vote. "In Chicago, compromise is an ugly word, compromise is seen as selling out."
As Pawar's investment in schools pays off, new challenges will rear their head, with residents and business owners likely to see a rise in property taxes and rents. The concern, he acknowledged, is that the smaller shops that give neighborhoods like Lincoln Square their unique character will be squeezed out in favor of larger enterprises.
This year, Mariano's — which received $4.5 million in TIF dollars — is expected to open in March on Lawrence Avenue, and French school Lycee Francais is set to break ground in the spring on its new campus near Damen and Wilson avenues. The two "anchors" already are drawing interest in their respective corridors, the alderman said.
"The push and pull is that our neighborhood is becoming really popular," Pawar said. "We've got to keep our dollars local. That's how you keep a neighborhood from turning upside-down with chains."
Pawar pointed to the recently opened Wax Man Spa and forthcoming Band of Bohemia brewpub and Roots Pizza as examples of positive additions to Lawrence Avenue. Bohemia is likely to come before the zoning committee in February, and the 47th Ward office is helping Roots get its city permits. A yet-to-be-announced wine bar is also in the works.
"What we're going to do is let Mariano's and LA Fitness open, finish Metra and the streetscape and see how pedestrian flow is impacted," Pawar said. "The same thing around Lycee and Montrose. We want to bring in thoughtful change that helps jump-start growth."