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Our View: Don’t throw money at South Fourth Street without a plan

Published: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Of the two newest areas the DeKalb City Council has targeted for redevelopment, the South Fourth Street corridor seems the most in need of help.

But there should be some plan for what the area is to become before that help comes, or the city will just be throwing money at a problem that it has been trying to fix for years. In addition, there must be a feasible strategy for attracting private developers to build there.

The area the city has targeted to be designated as a tax increment financing district includes properties along Fourth between Fairlane Avenue north to Culver Street, as well as a couple of blocks on nearby Lacas Street.

It’s a hodgepodge of auto repair shops, vacant buildings, along with a couple of restaurants and convenience retailers. There are some destination spots along the strip, but generally, people go there for a particular purpose and leave.

A report by PGAV Planners documented many of the areas in need of repair in the neighborhood, from public streets, sidewalks and light poles, to private businesses with unscreened dumpsters, the abandoned Protano’s Auto Parts property, where the ground has been contaminated by toxic waste from abandoned vehicles. Clearing the contamination likely would require the city to match any available grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

There’s also a vacant grocery store property in the area that has fallen into disrepair and will likely be costly either to rehab or demolish and start anew.

The proposal is for the city to designate the area as a TIF district. Such districts freeze the property tax payments that local governments – school and park districts, the city, and others – receive from property owners in an area for 23 years. As property values in an area increase over that period, the excess funds are diverted into a special account and can be used for improvements.

Without some kind of public investment, it seems likely that the area will continue to languish. South Fourth is a gateway to DeKalb – it’s how you enter driving north on Illinois Route 23 – but it’s more of a neighborhood area, not the “heart of the city” like downtown.

If improvements are made strictly with public financing, the city won’t see a very good return on its investment. Projections indicate that even if DeKalb invests $13.9 million in the area through the sale of bonds to make improvements, it will only generate $3.7 million in tax increment revenue. The area would connect with a more successful, established TIF district that includes downtown DeKalb, and the possibility exists that funds could be transferred, but the preference should be for South Fourth to be self-sustaining in the long term.

Unlike the downtown DeKalb area, which has generated tens of millions in increment revenue with limited private investment, it will be essential for private builders to buy in for the South Fourth Street area to thrive.

Which brings us back to the question of what the area should become. What will work there? Would narrowing South Fourth from four lanes to two, and creating a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscape be acceptable? Are there areas where more parking for businesses can be created? Should public parks, plazas or other public spaces be created?

To answer these questions, the city should engage not only the businesses and residents within the area, but also those nearby. Survey the hundreds of people who pack Kiwanis Park for youth soccer games on weekends, for example.

Tax increment financing is a tool that seems to have been created for areas such as South Fourth, which are likely to languish without help.

It’s clear that the area needs to change. But what should it become?

If there can be general agreement reached, the plan should proceed. Without a vision, the city will simply be throwing money at a problem.

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