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Chinatown Beautifcation Tax Ripped By Opponents, But Supporters Forge Ahead

By Joe Ward | August 18, 2017 6:50am
 Business leaders rally against a planned special service area tax that would bring beautification and marketing for the cultural destination.
Business leaders rally against a planned special service area tax that would bring beautification and marketing for the cultural destination.
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DNAinfo/Joe Ward

CHINATOWN — New banners have been installed along one of Chinatown's main commercial corridors, but they do not welcome visitors or promote a local attraction.

Instead, they slam a proposal that would create a special tax to beautify and promote the area.

The Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has petitioned the city to create what's known as a Special Service Area for the neighborhood's main business and entertainment corridor. The areas, which are citywide, help commercial districts to fund enhanced public services through the collection of an additional property tax.

Such a tax would fund needed beautification, marketing and other improvements to one of the South Side's biggest cultural and entertainment districts, according to those in favor of the plan. But there are some business and property owners in the area who say the tax is not in their best interest and would bleed them dry after a series of recent tax increases.

Community forums and City Council committee meetings have seen a vocal opposition to the proposal, officials said. Banners decrying the special service area were hung up throughout Chinatown Square — the mall along Archer and Wentworth avenues that is perhaps the most heavily trafficked area of Chinatown.

"Now the city wants to do one more tax," Joanna Moy, director of the United Chinatown Organization, said at a recent news conference. "We'll end up having problems making ends meet."

Others say that the special service area is needed because the area is a growing destination in the city with new attractions, millions in public infrastructure improvements and even a new neighborhood being built directly to the north. The tax — modest by special service area standards — would complement those improvements and help attract people to the area, supporters said.

Chinatown is the only major cultural or entertainment destination in the city not to have a special service area, according to officials.

"We feel the city has invested a lot of money in Chinatown. This money is making it a better place," said Darryl Tom, a local property owner and member of the chamber's special service area committee. "We think people will get a lot more than that in return."

Signs in opposition to the Special Service Area tax have been hung around Chinatown Square. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

A special service area would need City Council approval and the support of 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis, who said he is working to clarify misinformation about the proposal. At least one more hearing on the proposal will be held, he said.

"Some people that were very against were turned around," Solis said. "There's some people who are not."

The special service area would cover Chinatown Square, 2133 S. China Place, down to the area around Wentworth and Cermak Road. The $160,000 it would seek to raise per year would cost about $860 per year for each property owner within the area's boundaries, according to the chamber.

That amount is considerably less than what many of the city's 53 service areas bring in. (A Roger Park special service area covering Devon Avenue — another diverse, cultural destination — collects nearly $450,000, according to a city contract.)

Those funds would provide beautification and landscaping, power-washing, garbage cans and collection and marketing for the commercial district, Tom said. It would also fund a staff position to administer the newly collected tax, he said. Such improvements would boost Chinatown's appeal as the neighborhood makes strides in attracting more people.

A new Chinatown library opened in 2015 and a 30,000 square-foot park field house opened in the area two years before that. A $60 million plan to improve Wentworth and Wells venues has begun in earnest, and a 62-acre strip of land just north of Chinatown will be built into a "new riverfront neighborhood."

"It is not unreasonable for the city to ask for a sustainable system in which to maintain their investments," Ernie Wong, board member with the Chinese American Service League, wrote to business owners in an open letter. "The one thing that both proponents and opposition of the Chinatown SSA can agree on is that there are problems with trash, landscape and pavement maintenance, security, lighting, etc. All things that the [special service area] has the ability to address."

Business owners rally against the proposed special service tax in Chinatown Square on Tuesday. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

Not every business leader feels the same. The special service area proposal suffers from "bad timing," Tom said, because of the newly implemented pop tax, bag tax and a looming property tax increase. Business owners in the Chinatown Square Association pay an additional fee to pool resources, they said.

"It's going to effect all the retail businesses and restaurants in the area," said Pat Jan, a member of the Chinatown Association of Retail Space. "If businesses close, there will be no money for the [special service area]. Chinatown will be a ghost town."

There's no way to measure the economic impact of improvements made from special service areas, both sides said. But Chinatown already is seeing positive effects from its new amenities and changes to the area, and those could only be strengthened by the special service area, supporters say.

"We've got a new $20 million library, a new field house that is one of the jewels of the Park District," Solis said. "We think this [extra assessment] to complete beautification is a small price to pay."