The city’s Community Development Commission approved developers’ requests for nearly $10 million in tax dollars to renovate the defunct Congress Theater last week, but not everybody is happy about it. Daniel La Spata, who is challenging Alderman Joe Moreno for his 1st Ward seat in the upcoming 2019 election, held a press conference outside the Congress on June 19 to argue that the $9.65 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars would have been better spent on the ward’s public schools, which he says are suffering from $63 million dollars in “deferred maintenance.” The TIF money is meant to subsidize a $69 million project that includes plans for hotel and apartment additions to the theater, as well as a 100-unit residential building to be built in the vacant lot across the street, according to a June 12 Crain’s report. The request is still pending final approval from the City Council among a number of other committees.
La Spata, a longtime member of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, was joined on the corner of Rockwell and Milwaukee by Christine Dussault, a teacher at Chase Elementary School, among other prominent community members.
“We have had more leaks than I can even count, some of them spanning all three floors [of the building]” Dussault said. “Although there’s air conditioning in many of the classrooms, each spring or fall we have no idea whether they’re going to work in many of the buildings.”
According to Dussault, the lack of school funding ultimately comes at the detriment of her students’ education. “My school stays afloat and is successful because my colleagues and I spend our spare time writing grants,” she said. “We would much rather spend our spare time writing quality units and lessons than begging for money to assure that our students can receive a 21st-century education.”
The press conference provided La Spata with a platform to call out what he refers to as “the culture of corruption and cronyism that has become pervasive in the 1st Ward,” specifically drawing attention to the $4500 in campaign contributions that Moreno has received from CEO Michael Moyer of PalMet Ventures, the company behind the impending renovations. La Spata himself promised that he would not be accepting campaign contributions from developers planning to build within the ward.
For the community members speaking on La Spata’s behalf, the tax-subsidized renovations to the Congress are just another example of Moreno’s prioritization of new development over existing communities in the neighborhood.
“It will be used for concerts that the majority of the people in this ward cannot afford,” said Charlie Billups, a Logan Square resident and member of the Local School Council at Yates Elementary. Billups claimed that Yates Elementary will see a loss of 40 students at the start of the next academic year because working-class families can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood.
“Alderman Moreno is building high-density housing that is not targeted at families, only single residents that are not voters are living in these buildings,” Billups said.
Raymond Valadez, Moreno’s chief of staff, would not offer a comment about La Spata or his press conference but pointed out that the Community Development Commission’s approval is only the first step in a long process that includes meetings with community members in the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association.
“The alderman has been very clear in terms of TIF projects,” Valadez said. “He only supports projects that support schools or affordable housing, and the Congress redevelopment project will provide affordable housing units.”
La Spata would, in all likelihood, be too late in efforts to push back against the development if he were elected in 2019. He says his attention would then be focused on obtaining affordable housing within the Congress and ensuring that Logan Square residents get hired there.
“But we’re definitely going to keep our eye on making sure that there is a community process to any development that goes on next door here. We want the MICA Towers to be an anomaly, a mistake, rather than the trend that continues down Milwaukee,” he said, referring to the newly erected condominiums at the corner of Milwaukee and California, which have become a symbol of Logan Square’s gentrification.
“The Alderman has made his decision on who he wants to represent, and it is not us,” said La Spata by way of closing remarks.
You can watch a video of La Spata’s press conference here.