TMCnet News

As Jewish school battles Evanston over zoning, 'dream site' sits unused [Chicago Tribune]
[October 09, 2011]

As Jewish school battles Evanston over zoning, 'dream site' sits unused [Chicago Tribune]

(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 09--An Orthodox Jewish school has been fighting the city of Evanston in court for two years over land it bought in the hope of expanding. The city has rejected requests to change the zoning from industrial, so the site sits vacant.

The five-acre parcel could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue in a city that -- between Northwestern University, two hospitals, 75 parks and playgrounds, and many churches and city-owned properties -- is peppered with entities that pay no property taxes.

Evanston officials declined to comment about the ongoing lawsuit. Responses to motions are due in court next month, but a trial is not expected until spring.

The zoning in that area does not allow schools -- either religious or secular. But a church was given permission to build next door. Officials at Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary in Chicago can't understand how their plan for a boys school isn't preferable to letting the property stagnate.

"We figured Evanston doesn't want to have a blight on the community," said School Board President Moshe Davis.

The school's religious affiliation had nothing to do with rejection of the application, said a former Plan Commission member, Charles Staley.

"It was more of an issue of should it be industrial or should it be a school," he said in a recent interview. "And what about the tax revenue?" The school was billed $137,500 for property taxes in 2007, and $138,500 in 2008, Davis said. After appeals for 2009 and 2010, officials reduced the tax bills to $105,000. That money's divvied among the county, township, city and school districts.

Officials at the elementary knew about the zoning when they purchased the Hartrey Avenue property in 2007 with a $3.7 million loan, backed by 10 area businessmen.

"Most of us on the board, we're businessmen," said Davis. "We're not strangers to the concept of zoning issues." Portions of the industrial site have been put to nonindustrial uses, he noted. The school board thought the city would allow the school as well, especially given that the property has remained vacant for several years.

Two Evanston aldermen said they denied the application to preserve the property for industrial use, according to court documents. And several commissioners expressed concern with a nonprofit taking the site off the tax roll, according to the transcript of a 2008 Plan Commission hearing.

"I would say Evanston's almost too well integrated with institutional uses in terms of percentage of land value that's taxable versus non-taxable," then-Commissioner Robin Schuldenfrei said, according to the transcript.

Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov took the city to court in mid-2009 over the right to build the boys school at 222 Hartrey Ave.

That site and an adjacent property at 2401 Brummel was home to Shure Inc., makers of audio products, until 2002. Property owner CenterPoint was been unable to find an industrial tenant, despite aggressive marketing, according to court documents.

Land on the southern portion of the site was changed to commercial zoning in the early 1990s, when a shopping center housing Target, Jewel and other stores was created. In 2004, CenterPoint sold the 2401 Brummel site to Vineyard Church, which was granted a special use to operate.

School officials argue in their lawsuit that the Hartrey Avenue property is poorly equipped for industrial use, given that it "has no visibility from public roads, is accessed via a shopping center parking lot, and lacks convenient highway access." When the school learned in 2006 about the site, it seemed a perfect place to expand. The current boys school, 6122 N. California, is overcrowded with 280 students. "It's a dream site," Davis said. "We're dealing with a solid, huge empty box with the parking lot to match." Davis said the school has been willing to discuss taking part in a city program that has allowed some nonprofits to make payments as compensation for lost property taxes.

"I sympathize with Evanston's position on tax revenue," Davis said. "We all understand that. The last thing we want to say is we're getting a free pass. Let's sit down and discuss what Evanston would like to see. We're happy to pay it." [email protected] ___ (c)2011 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at Distributed by MCT Information Services

[ Back To's Homepage ]