In what may be a reversal of intention for at least some of the nine aldermen on the Civic Center Committee, the members voted on April 23 to investigate the costs of making the building safe and habitable for the next few years.
Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said at the beginning of the meeting, “Because we do not have $50 million or $70 million, I propose that we ask [Facilities Manager David] Cook what it would take to make this building safe and healthy. … It is with regret that I do this.”
Ald. Tisdahl said she had heard there is mold in some of the offices, the roof continues to leak, and the bathrooms need to be refitted to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A firestorm of debate followed on the seriousness of the mold problem, the means and necessity of asbestos abatement and the possibility of containing costs once any repairs were begun.
“You’re suggesting we curb our discussion of the other options – for what?” asked Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward. “Until we are in a financial position to come up with a better solution,” Ald. Tisdahl replied. Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, and Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, both questioned whether this would be a stop-gap measure or the beginning of a complete rehab of the building, thus foreclosing any options to relocate.
“How much are you thinking of as a stop-gap measure?” Ald. Rainey asked. “The only way we’re going to get a stream of revenue [for a Civic Center] is by selling the property.”
“I want to make sure the building is safe,” Ald. Tisdahl said. She added she had spoken with Mr. Cook that day and he had given her a ball-park figure of $6 million to fix the roof and tuck-point the building to prevent further leakage and mold formation and to make the bathrooms ADA-compliant.
Mr. Cook said mold has been found in several offices. “So far, it’s penicillin – it’s bread mold,” he said. Mold of that type is not inherently dangerous, but anyone with sensitivity to mold will be affected; he said so far he has been able to relocate all but one person who was bothered by mold. “When you have moisture in the walls, there is a continuing possibility of mold formation,” he added. “It might be bread mold, but the next time we check, it could be another kind.” He said once the building was tuck-pointed and the roof repaired, removing the mold would be relatively easy.
Ald. Moran questioned whether the health of City employees would be put at risk if the mold were removed and asbestos abated while employees still worked in the building. Mr. Cook said neither should present a health hazard.
Ald. Tisdahl said while she was on the District 202 School Board such procedures were done at Evanston Township High School, with sections of the school sealed off but while employees and students were in the building.
Ald. Bernstein appeared to view the present Civic Center as a money pit. “I have no faith in any of the [projected costs]. If Dave [Cook] says it’s a $6 million project, it’s a $20 million fix. … I can’t believe that $2.5 million or $4 million or $6 million will stop the bleeding.” He said he did not doubt Mr. Cook’s estimate was a good-faith one but felt that with a building as old as the Civic Center – some sections are more than 100 years old – it was difficult to tell what problems would crop up as others were being addressed.
Aldermen Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said they thought there was no alternative but to investigate fixing up the building – whether as a stop-gap or as the beginning of a commitment to rehabbing the building for long-term use.
Ald. Holmes said she “would go as high as $10 million for the immediate repairs.”
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he felt the committee had “no choice” but to remain at the Civic Center and rehab it for long-term use. “This building has plenty of space. When you look at the discussions, the only building at hand is this building, unless the City Manager has something new. … Let’s invest in this building. The reason we’re here is that we have no reasonable alternatives.”
City Manager Julia Carroll indicated that the most recent space the aldermen had been investigating as a site for a new Civic Center did not appear to be feasible. Ald. Rainey said she felt the reason the City has not relocated is that “we’re unable to make a decision.” Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, who chairs the Civic Center Committee, said, “I don’t think we’ve not moved because of a lack of will. At the end of the day, if we had a place to move, we’d have moved there. … But I just don’t believe we can do [these repairs] for less.”
Ald. Wynne said she “agreed with the spirit of what Ald. Tisdahl said. The numbers [for repair or for a new Civic Center] have just shot into space. Over the years we thought we had a grand plan to move, but things have not lined up for us. … I think the idea that we could sell this building for what we once thought we could is not realistic. We need to make a decision. It’s not quite a stop-gap; it’s putting us into a holding pattern.”
The Committee held a closed-session meeting afterward to discuss the “sale or acquisition of real estate.”