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On March 25 the City Council’s Civic Center Committee, composed of all nine aldermen, heard seven options for the fate of the Civic Center, the results of a six-month study led by the Chicago-based design firm Ross Barney Architects.

This report was the tenth commissioned by the City since 1998. Only City officials received the study before the meeting, and the consultants’ presentation – which appeared to confuse even the aldermen – brought to light several errors in the report.

Nonetheless, some aldermen appeared to be leaning toward relocating the Civic Center to an undetermined site rather than renovate the existing facility. The aldermen agreed to table the vote until April 23 for further review, and after the meeting they went into closed session to discuss land acquisition.

Report Summary

Three of the seven options in the report entailed renovation of the existing building; three examined relocation to an unspecified site; and all but one proposed residential development for portions of the 2100 Ridge Ave. site the Civic Center now occupies.

Appearing wary of adding to the City’s financial burden, the aldermen focused on the two options that seemed to present the lowest net cost to the City.

The option with the lowest net expense, according to the revised report, proposes the construction of a 130,000-square-foot building at a new, as yet undetermined site, at an estimated cost of approximately $48 million. That amount assumes an offset of construction costs with the sale of a portion of the Ridge Avenue site and the use of the three existing downtown parking garages to absorb the 405 parking spaces required by City code for a building of that size.

The City’s downtown parking garages have a total capacity of 3,300 spaces, said Rickey Voss, the City’s parking manager. Mr. Voss said a number of variables determines the available capacity of the garages during peak daytime hours and was not able to provide an accurate number by the time this story went to press.

The 130,000-square-foot building would be 18,000 square feet larger than the existing Civic Center. The need for additional space was determined in an earlier study conducted by the design firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which factored in space for the Township offices and the Evanston Community Media Center, said City Manager Julia Carroll. The report estimates the land acquisition cost to be around $7.5 million, assuming a downtown location, and less if the site is located outside of downtown or on City-owned property. The option does not reflect the loss of City revenues from the removal of downtown property from the tax rolls.

The option with the lowest net expense is the construction of a new 130,000-square-foot building at a yet undetermined site, at an estimated cost of
about $48 million.

According to the report, the option to renovate the existing building with a three-year, phased construction plan, with no residential development on the Ridge Avenue site, is the second most cost-effective option. The report approximates the cost of renovation at $50.5 million. However, architect Carol Ross Barney, the lead consultant, said the total does not reflect costs that might be incurred from temporarily relocating staff within the building; complications to the City’s information technology system; temporary signage; and temporary parking for construction workers and contractors.

Aldermen’s Concerns

Some aldermen seemed to dismiss the option to renovate the Civic Center as too costly.

“I can see no point in talking about this anymore because how can we possibly pay for that?” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, referring to the option to restore the building.

Fourth Ward alderman Steven Bernstein, chair of the Civic Center committee, said, “It’s going to be a wonderful building – it’ll depend on where we put it.”

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, voiced a concern about asbestos contamination that could result from the restoration of the existing building. Ald. Bernstein also mentioned asbestos as well as construction accidents that could lead to possible lawsuits that would add to the cost of restoring the building with a three-year construction project.

Seventh Ward Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl said she would probably vote for the relocation option; Alderman Edmund Moran Jr., 6th Ward, said the analysis did not alter his view and that he was for the relocation option as well.

Alderman Anjana Hansen, 9th Ward, said she needed more time to review the study.

Concerned ‘Friends’

John Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Friends of the Civic Center, told the RoundTable he was concerned that some aldermen were looking at this issue emotionally, basing their judgment on personal feelings about the existing building.

“People need to look rationally at this conclusion, and not based on a report that had mistakes in it,” he said.

At $50.5 million, renovating the existing building with a three-year, phased construction plan, and no residential development on the Ridge Avenue site, is the second most cost-effective option.

Mr. Kennedy questioned the financial feasibility of all seven of the presented options, referring to the City’s pension obligations and lowered bond rating. “We’re not in a situation where we can afford everything,” he said. He suggested the City consider “a cheaper approach – fix things that are broken and fix it piece by piece over the next ten years to bring it into decent shape.”

Mr. Kennedy also said he was wary of relying on the real estate market to offset relocation and construction costs. “It is an assumption in a climate with a hot real estate market,” he said. The recent suspension, due to lack of sales, of residential development projects such as the Sienna project on Oak Avenue at Clark Street and the Eastwood Condominiums on Central Street seem to indicate a waning real estate market in Evanston.

Ten Years in the Making

Since 1998 the City has hired consultants for ten different analyses of the Civic Center building and the Ridge Avenue site. The RoundTable has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the total amount spent on these evaluations. A former alderman told the RoundTable that last year former finance director Matthew Grady III, in response to her FOIA, told her the cost of the studies was approximately $2 million.

“I think it’s time to do something,” said Ald. Bernstein.

Numbers Corrected

Several aldermen appeared ready to approve the option to relocate the Civic Center and utilize existing parking downtown despite a number of errors pertaining to the option in the initial report. The original report, which was given to the Committee before the presentation, projected the net cost of this option at about $27 million. Although Ms. Ross Barney made note of an error in the estimate during the presentation, it was unclear whether the correct numbers were provided to the Council during the meeting. The revised report, posted on the City’s Web site on March 28, estimates the cost of the option at approximately $48 million.

Ms. Ross Barney did not return the RoundTable‘s requests for clarification, but during the presentation she told the Committee, “”The numbers I’m giving you today are reasonable, safe numbers.””