Two dumb tax policies give Aussie millionaire a bite of your lunch

Image Credit: Marshall Astor (cc) via flickr

From Crains we have a report that McPier — the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority which controls McCormick Place and Navy Pier — has paid $5.5 million for about half an acre which sold last year for just “over $1 million.” It seems to be an awfully nice profit for Drapec USA, the California-based Australian real estate operator who earlier was expected to develop the property themselves.

I don’t know that this deal was in any way particularly corrupt or dishonest.  Maybe the parcel actually quintupled in value over 14 months.  Or maybe Drapec really has better “analytical and negotiating skills in finance and real estate” than McPier (or the seller last year, BMO Harris).  But there are two things I do know:

(1) The multi-million dollar profit will be paid by everyone who patronizes restaurants in or near the central part of Chicago, where McPier imposes a 1% tax on all meals. To keep the math easy, figure the average fast-food meal costs $5.50, yielding 5½¢ for McPier.  At that rate, it’ll take a hundred million meals to buy this real estate. Of course, McPier has other tax revenues, too. And actually, not quite all meals are subject to the tax, since some nonprofit organizations, as well as governmental agencies including McPier, are exempt.

(2) The asserted purpose of McPier is to “strengthen the local economy.”   Why should the economy need to be “strengthened?” What are the obstacles preventing people from finding productive employment? Certainly one of these obstacles is taxes, not only the amount of taxes paid but also the difficulty and expence of conforming to all the applicable tax rules and regulations. Another, perhaps more important obstacle, is the vacant and underused land throughout the City.  Land can be forced into productive use by collecting its full economic value through a land value tax.  Since nothing can be produced without labor, productive use means wages will be earned. That is the way to strengthen the local economy.  Of course, under a full land value tax, the selling price of that half-acre parcel near McCormick Place would be nominal, and Drapec would not have bought it unless they planned to begin development promptly.

Are subsidies driving Chicago land prices back up?

Image linked from the Crain’s article

Of course they are, but it’s convenient to see it illustrated as Crains Chicago Real Estate Daily explains.

The proposal seems to be for Pam Gleichman and Karl Norberg to sell their 4.9 acre parcel (the Tribune story says 3.67 acres) near McCormick Place, in pieces, for a total of $195 million, which works out to something over $900/square foot, a level which I don’t recall seeing so distant from the loop.  We also learn from Crains that $90 million in TIF (real estate tax) money will be sought to help pay for these developments.  And of course the entire McCormick Place complex benefits from the 1% tax which all restaurant patrons in the central portion of Chicago (as far north as Diversey and as far west as Ashland) pay, not to mention the basic urban services, such as fire protection, transit, and streets, which are funded from other taxes.  We’re all paying so Gleichman and Norberg can get their $195 million. It’s only slightly comforting to realize that their venture is in bankruptcy, and the only reason we get to see these details is because they’re part of a court filing.  But it seems that, if everything works out as they claim, they’ll get to keep a large portion of this money.

Just for fun, we can consider what would have happened under a land value tax.  If the land was taxed at something approaching its full economic rent, it would likely already be developed pretty fully because nobody could profit by holding it underused.  There would likely be no bankruptcy because nobody would have loaned money on land with a modest selling price.