Monday, August 6, 2012
Outside Agit Prop Makes Confused Arguments About Local Hotel
-posted by chicago pop
All politics, it has been said, is local. It can even be micro-local, so much so that the framework used for understanding what goes on at one level in Chicago doesn't necessarily translate to another level.
That appears to be the case here. Once again, a hotel project, supported by a number of non-profit local institutions (the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry), representing the kind of expanded commercial opportunities that a majority of the neighborhood's residents have repeatedly said they want, has been targeted by interests not directly concerned with the neighborhood for use in their own ideological conflict.
Fortunately, they will lose. The hotel, which Hyde Park needs and wants - regardless of conspiracy theories centered on Penny Pritzker - will be built. Said interests will conduct their next skirmish elsewhere.
The hash of an argument presented in the flyer above, although it builds on a handful of genuine concerns, opportunistically mashes them together and forces them to conform to the Procrustean bed of the Occupation Movement's rhetoric. Even more basic, its factual allegations are annoyingly flimsy enough for us to take a few precious moments of our evening to dissect them.
Were it the summary of a doctoral proposal, we would send its fervent grad student author back to the stacks.
What seems to have triggered this mobilization is the Chicago City Council's decision last month to grant a further subsidy the the Harper Court project of $5.2 million, drawn from the City's amorphous general TIF fund. This was not the first city subsidy, but it was the first since the financial crisis and the emergence of Occupy Chicago.
What is clear above all is that the creators of this flyer don't like TIFs. TIFs freeze the property tax revenue going to various local taxing bodies, such as school districts, at the level they are at when the TIF is created. Subsequent tax revenue stemming from rising property values associated with a project are used to reinvest in the district, or to pay off the loans raised to pay for it.
So the $5,200,000 'siphoned' away from the CPS and other municipal services would most likely not have spontaneously materialized had TIFs not existed in the first place, because in many cases (like that of Hyde Park), property values are relatively stagnant and the market is inactive.
That's not good for school districts, because it keeps property tax revenues down. A hotel hasn't been built in Hyde Park in over 50 years. Growth in local property values has trailed Chicago average by 33%. 51% of existing structures in the district have been cited for code violations. (see p.3, here). Those are the kinds of conditions that can easily tip into a downward spiral of urban disinvestment - and THAT is what sinks local school districts.
More fundamentally, the flyer presumes that the problem of failing urban schools is a dearth of cash. This is deeply questionable. There are many factors going into the failure of inner-city schools, chief among them being the concentration of impoverished families in given school districts. The whole point of court-ordered desegregation policies after Brown vs. the Board of Education was to remedy this demographic imbalance. Throwing money at existing imbalances doesn't solve the problem bequeathed by segregation.
Another reason schools on the South Side are failing is because parents realize they are failing and move away. The result is under-enrolled local schools, like the one in my district. CPS runs a large number of failing schools for only a few hundred students, and this serves neither the students nor the taxpayers. Closing schools to consolidate districts, especially when those schools are underperforming, is by no means a tragedy: it's not that different from certain situations that arose under the system of court-ordered busing.
So when the flyer goes on to suggest that '7 schools from the neighborhood are scheduled to be defunded', it's misleading to suggest that the $5,200,000 could save them if it weren't going to some useless, fru-fru project like a hotel in Hyde Park, the only economic hub in the vast South Side of Chicago. That cash alone won't alter the concentration of poverty in school districts, increase parental involvement in or the valuing of children's education in those same districts, or necessarily improve the instruction they receive from their teachers. It's a simplistic, even spurious linkage.
Theoretically, you could abolish TIF districts and tax the rich all you like, but you're not going to fix the problem that way.
The more cartoonish aspect of this flyer, however, is the attempt to paint the hotel project as a white elephant resulting from the Pharaoh paying a favor to a nefarious Machine operative, Penny Pritzker, who, from her position on the School Board, acts to divert millions from reinvestment in schools and towards her own business (which her family no longer privately controls) .
First of all, it was the City Council that decided to funnel this $5,200,000 to the Hyde Park Hyatt, not Penny Pritzker, and not the Chicago School Board. Pritzker had little to do with it. The University of Chicago, as locals know, has been trying to get a hotel built in the neighborhood for half a decade or more, and would have taken a Marriott had not that plan been sabotaged by a truly myopic minority. The City Department of Planning and Development, together with the previous and present 4th Ward Aldermen - neither of them toadies to this or the previous Mayor - have supported the development of 53rd Street as a net benefit to the neighborhood and, by extension, the South Side of Chicago. Nothing in this document provides any reason why this should not be so.
Arguing that the entire project is simply a product of cronyism, a white elephant stemming from a politician's favor to a tycoon, ignores the local history of disinvestment, ignores the dynamics of urban economies, ignores the repeated surveys expressing preferences for expanded local retail opportunities, and above all, ignores the fundamental benefits a hotel would bring to the area -- stabilizing South Side neighborhoods by providing more jobs for workers, more business for local merchants, and a more attractive quality of life for taxpaying families who might decide to move here and commit to local school districts.
So it looks like the Penny Pritzker connection will be a "Gotcha!" one only for weak minds, and for those more concerned to squeeze local particularities into a ready-made ideological template of 99 vs. 1%.
There is undoubtedly a time and a place for that template. But it is not here.