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Pilsen tax district on hold, but plan could be revived

In Pilsen 18th Street Blue IslAvenue plan for new taxing district is being disputed. June 11 2013. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun

In Pilsen on 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue a plan for a new taxing district is being disputed. June 11, 2013. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun -Times

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Updated: July 15, 2013 6:29PM

Grass-roots community activism has notched a victory in Pilsen. But it remains to be seen if it is a lasting one.

The Resurrection Project, one of Pilsen’s leading community groups, had prepared a plan for a special service area, or SSA, a district in which property owners would pay a higher tax. The money ordinarily goes to enhanced services such as security, sanitation or beautification.

Businesses districts often use SSAs to get services the city otherwise wouldn’t fund. But some SSAs have come under scrutiny for causing large increases in property tax bills. In 2010, an aborted SSA in West Pullman caused some businesses’ bills to more than double.

The Pilsen SSA would have covered most of 18th Street and Cermak from Halsted to Damen, as well as other business stretches. It would have included homes in the mix, too, especially along 18th. One source said it would have raised tax bills by about 11 percent.

The plan drew heavy criticism at community meetings, which many residents suspect were called only after the deal was cut. The Resurrection Project had a spinoff group, the Greater Pilsen Economic Development Association, set to run the SSA.

Then on May 30, the Resurrection Project posted a notice that it was withdrawing the SSA proposal. The notice cited a need to educate the community about SSA benefits and engage in more dialogue, a sign the idea will be back.

The community group Pilsen Alliance fought the plan. Its executive director, Nelson Soza, said it was an ill-timed tax increase on a struggling area.

“Pilsen is a community under pressure from gentrification,” he said, asserting that 10,000 Latinos have left in the last 15 years. “It’s becoming more expensive to live in the community.”

Businesses were among the major opponents. Al DiFranco, a longtime Pilsen resident and owner of a photography studio at 2107 S. Halsted, said businesses thought the promised services should come from either existing taxes or their own initiative.

Raul Raymundo, chief executive officer of the Resurrection Project, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Something else that stuck in people’s craw: SSA advocates acknowledged that Pilsen’s largest property owner, John Podmajersky, got an advance look at the plan and wanted no part of it. SSA boundaries shown to the community excluded his buildings, which are mostly on or near Halsted from 18th to Canalport.

“People figured that if the biggest landowner in the neighborhood doesn’t have to pay the tax, why should we?” DiFranco said.

HULL OF A FIGHT: Chicago preservationists aligned with members of the theater community to save the former Hull House Theater at 4520 N. Beacon. The property was sold in May to developer and landlord Dave Gassman for $990,000, according to records. Gassman has a pending zoning application to convert the property to 24 apartments.

“It is the best designed small theater in Chicago and it would be a crying shame to lose it,” said Nick Rabkin, former executive director of the Organic Theater. The 144-seat venue is in the basement of what was the Uptown branch of the Hull House Association, now defunct. Rabkin said the theater is a historical link to the role that the arts played at Hull House and other social-service organizations.

The theater opened in 1966 and became one of the defining places of the off-Loop circuit. Noted architect Crombie Taylor designed it. Chicago stage alumni Joe Mantegna, Jim Belushi and George Wendt are among those who have signed on in support.

But they don’t own the property, and sources said Gassman hasn’t been sympathetic to any appeals. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

The City Council Zoning Committee was scheduled to take up Gassman’s application Tuesday but deferred action until June 25. Rabkin said the Consortium to Save Hull House Theater will seek pledges for a potential purchase while asking the city to consider landmarking the property.

Pegasus Players uses the space. Uptown Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who has backed the developer, is helping Pegasus find new space in the neighborhood.

HOTEL HOPPING: The Allerton Hotel at 701 N. Michigan is for sale. A source said CBRE Inc. has just acquired the listing for the 443-room hotel. The owner, Petra Capital Management LLC, acquired it last year out of bankruptcy. No purchase price is being listed.

CBRE, meanwhile, handled the sale of Evanston’s landmark Hilton Orrington Hotel, 1710 Orrington Ave. The sale is expected to close later this month. Filings with the city’s liquor commission show Seattle-based Dow Hotel Co. is the buyer. The seller is Greenfield Partners LLC.

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