With numerous vacant properties left at the tide line of the receding Great Recession, The Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) was created in 2013 to find new uses for this inventory. Though their early efforts focused on single-family homes, the rehabilitation of industrial and commercial properties is poised to make an even larger impact.
“We always knew we wanted to expand into commercial and industrial properties because there is so much of that property in the region as well,” said CCLBA executive director, Rob Rose.
Working independently or with municipal and other partners, CCLBA acquires properties, liens, notes or deeds through purchase, donation, forfeiture and other transfers, maintaining the properties tax free. The organization will then extinguish delinquent taxes and liens where possible, demolish a building when appropriate and put the now-rectified property on the market so that it can again serve a productive use.
The CCLBA closed its first industrial transaction in west suburban Bellwood in February, 2016, with the acquisition of a group of warehouses. It has since completed deals for industrial sites in south suburban Harvey and in Chicago as well. For the Bellwood project, the CCLBA not only acquired the buildings, but helped to clear out encumbrances such as back taxes. They then shopped the properties, found an owner and the site is now fully functional and employing around 100 people.
“Bellwood was the first community where this was happening,” Rose said. “Now we’re looking to expand that with the tax certificates that we picked up in the 2017 scavenger sale.”
CCLBA has the authority during bi-annual Cook County tax scavenger sales to acquire tax delinquent parcels, clear back taxes and other related fees in order to remove barriers for those in the community who want to turn them into a useful purpose. So far, CCLBA has collected over $4.3 million in tax dollars just off of the properties they acquired in 2015 and 2017 tax sales. The organization’s overall impact is both greater, and has greater potential.
“Over the last three years since I’ve been the executive director, we have created well over $35 million of value in terms of rehabbing homes and getting them back into the hands of homeowners,” Rose said. “Once commercial and industrial buildings come back on the tax rolls, they have a profound effect on your tax base because they are such a large percentage of taxes generated in any one area.”
In September, the CCLBA turned their attention to another impoverished area, Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, with the issue of an RFP to redevelop the 94-year-old Washington Park National Bank Building. Located at the corner of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove, the once-thriving, 35,000-square-foot historic bank has sat vacant for more than two decades.
“Woodlawn is an up-and-coming neighborhood,” said Rose. “There is a lot of positive momentum happening with the Obama presidential center being located in Jackson Park, with the pricing that we’ve seen and the University of Chicago making significant investments in the area.”
In partnership with the Metropolitan Planning Council, CCLBA collected resident input for the renovated property. Community members suggested that any redevelopment create a “signature marquee” of the Woodlawn community, including retail shops, commercial offices and medical facilities. The hope is that changes to the property, designed by architect Albert Schwartz and located next to the CTA’s Cottage Grove Green Line stop, will maximize the economic, social, historic and ecological values of the property and its surroundings.
“At that intersection, all four corners are being redeveloped to create a vibrant Woodlawn center. So for us, our involvement here is part of a larger story which is to help stabilize and revitalize the neighborhood,” Rose said. “We’re talking about being able to take a long-term vacant building and bring it back to productive use as something that can be a benefit to the community. We can remove an eyesore that has been a very visible metaphor for the neighborhood.”
Looking to future non-residential acquisitions, the CCLBA is actively seeking commercial and industrial brokers to help identify end users and to market properties once back taxes have been cleared, along with other redresses. They also recently partnered with the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies to identify focus communities where substantial investment would provide the greatest positive impact.
“We identified areas that have both an abundance of properties, plenty of supply, but also where there are signs of life, some demand. Where we saw some overlap is where we decided to focus our efforts,” Rose said.
Unlike a commercial investor, there’s no time constraint forcing a deal to happen in order to maximize returns. With the CCLBA, the right use in the right location can be calculated for maximum positive impact on the neighborhood.
“Part of what the Land Bank does is it gives the communities time to catch up, if you will, because we are able to acquire these properties, hold them, retain the value and then when that community is ready to redevelop that asset, then we are able to contribute to an overall redevelopment effort,” said Rose.
The CCLBA is a unit of Cook County government and the largest land bank by geography in the country. Funding primarily comes via grants, contributions and revenues from transactions.