On April 23 the Civic Center Committee plans to decide the fate of 2100 Ridge Ave. and the former Catholic girls’ school that has housed the City government offices since 1979.

The Committee, composed of all nine aldermen, appears to favor building a new, larger Civic Center. Their decision may be based in part on the cost estimates in a report submitted last month and led by Ross Barney Architects.

The Committee seems to favor a downtown location (as yet unspecified) in order to take advantage of the existing parking structures. Construction costs of a new Civic Center could be offset by the sale of portions of the 2100 Ridge Ave. site for residential development and the creation of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district on the site, with the tax increment used to help pay for the new building.

The Ross Barney report is the most recent of 10 reports the City has received in the past 10 years. The option with the lowest net cost, according to the revised report, proposes the construction of a 130,000-square-foot building at a new, as of yet undetermined site, at an estimated net cost of approximately $48 million.

Two years ago, U.S. Equities laid out five options for a new or rehabbed Civic Center. The option with the lowest net cost to the City proposed constructing a 90,000-square-foot building on the Library parking lot site. Assuming the sale of the Ridge Avenue site and TIF revenues, U.S. Equities projected the City would have no net cost under this option.

A New, Larger Civic Center

Although a report submitted in 2006 by U.S. Equities proposed the construction of a 90,000 square-foot building, the following year saw a report by Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) suggesting a larger building. The SOM study, based upon interviews with City staff, found the City needs approximately 117,000 to 135,000 square feet of space to accommodate the City’s programmed services and archival storage space and to accommodate Evanston Township offices and the Evanston Community Media Center, which films most City events for local cable television.

The Ross Barney report was prepared after the SOM recommendation, and estimates the cost of a 130,000-square-foot building.

Next Steps

The Friends of the Civic Center – an ad hoc group composed of architects, engineers and other professionals, as well as Mayor Lorraine Morton and former Mayor Jay Lytle – continues to push for preservation of the existing Civic Center building, yet the aldermen appear to be set in their desire to construct a new Civic Center. Several years ago, the Council, with a different aldermanic makeup, voted unanimously to move from the Ridge Avenue site and no new vote has been taken.

In recent months, the Civic Center Committee has held closed-session meetings to discuss real estate and they are expected to continue on that path at the April 23 meeting.

“Friends’ Response”

The Friends of the Civic Center – an ad hoc committee of architects, engineers, design professionals and the present and one former Mayor – submitted its analysis of the Ross Barney report to the City for review.

The Friends’ analysis, said spokesperson John Kennedy, highlights a number of concerns they say the Ross Barney report does not address and that could add to the cost of relocating the Civic Center. Among these are a delay in developing the 2100 Ridge Ave. site due to the depressed real estate market in Evanston, and the financial impact to the City of borrowing the funds to construct a new Civic Center.

As an example, Mr. Kennedy said the Ross Barney report offsets a portion of the $71 million in total cost for a new Civic Center with projected revenues of $9.2 million from the sale of portions of the land at 2100 Ridge Ave. Ross Barney projects the land would be sold and construction of residential development would begin by February 2009.

“It’s a total myth if [the City] thinks they will be able to sell the building quickly,” said Mr. Kennedy. He referred to the vacant Kendall College site, where the developer has abandoned the project and is seeking to sell the property; the suspension of the Eastwood condominium project on Central Street; and the Sienna project on Oak Avenue, where the developer wishes to replace two residential towers with a hotel, as prime examples of how risky the current real estate market is in Evanston.

Even with the immediate sale of the property, Mr. Kennedy contends, the City would still have to borrow $48 million to pay for the new Civic Center. By his calculations, the loan would cost the City $3.4 million per year to pay it back in 20 years. If there is a delay in the sale of 2100 Ridge Ave., he said, the City would have to borrow the full $71 million at a cost of $5 million per year. Not only could this potentially cost the City even more with a lowered credit rating, he said, but the debt, in addition to the City’s police and fire pension fund issues and its difficulty balancing the operating budget, would “either force an increase in taxes or a decrease in services provided by the City.”

David Cook, facilities manager for the City, told the RoundTable the City is preparing a response to the Friends’ response.