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Thing seem to be getting busy at the Civic Center again, with packed agendas and rooms filled with concerned citizens. Cameras and the Ecology Center were front-and-center at City Council’s recent meetings.

To start, however, the Administration and Public Works Committee questioned a $234 clown fee on the submitted bills list. The clown fee, payment for entertainment at children’s parties at the Levy Center, is more than covered by the $315 party fee, Parks Department head Doug Gaynor assured the Committee.

A bit later, no one on the committee asked a single question about the nearly $2 million water main replacement contract. For that $2 million, five water mains will be replaced as streets are resurfaced, with most of the money coming from the water fund, into which every water bill payment is deposited. Bids ranged from the accepted $2 million to $3.36 million, with a City engineer’s estimate of $2.39 million. Perhaps there was no discussion because Council felt the City got a good deal.

On to the Ecology Center, in need of a new greenhouse for years. Bids for a replacement ranged from $135,000 to $285,000, and the City recommended a $175,000 version because the low bidder did not provide enough minority-, Evanston- or women-owned businesses as subcontractors.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, questioned the proposal, calling it “half baked.” The contractor chosen has not built greenhouses before, and schematics were not presented as part of the bid package, he said.

The purpose of the building also came into question, with Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asking for a list of programs that would be offered in the greenhouse. Mr. Gaynor said the City views the greenhouse as a truly multipurpose space, used for both growing plants and teaching classes.

Ultimately, the Committee voted to hold the matter, pending more information about the contractor, a basic plan of the project and a list of activities expected to be presented within the new space. The matter is expected to return to the Committee at its next meeting.

Next came the Tiny House, an environmentally sustainable home created by Northwestern University. NU agreed to donate the home to the Ecology Center, and the question before Council was whether to accept it. Fred Schneider, president of the Evanston Environmental Association, the group responsible for overseeing the Ecology Center, presented the project saying he expected the Tiny House to increase the Ecology Center’s visibility while educating the public on sustainability.

Virginia Beatty questioned the location of the building, saying a solar-powered house in the shade showed people nothing and that the only sunny location would be in the middle of an existing flower garden. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, insisted that the Marjorie Blair Perkins wildflower plot would be spared. With that caveat, the measure passed.

The Tiny House will be coming soon. Sadly, Mr. Gaynor said the structure’s composting toilet would not be operational. The traditional sewer will have to suffice for now, he said. 

A grant to the Community Partners for Affordable Housing in the form of a forgivable HOME Loan of nearly $278,000 passed, but not without inquiry. Ald. Rainey began the discussion by saying, “I’m opposed to this, based on the lack of information. …Don’t spend money just to spend it,” she said.

Sarah Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants Administrator, and Rob Anthony from CPAH answered all questions presented. The property will not be placed into a land trust, Mr. Anthony said. The City’s affordable housing is rented almost immediately, said Ms. Flax. A final concern –  about the reference to a possible grant from the Illinois Attorney General as a part of the foreclosure litigation settlement against the banks – was said to be unconnected, though progress in providing affordable housing was seen as a positive, said Ms. Flax. In the end, Ald. Rainey was convinced. “My inclination now is to support his,” she said. It passed on the consent agenda.

Efforts to allow an indoor recreation center to locate within an industrial-zoned area proceeded slowly, as Ald. Rainey continued to express fear that a not-for-profit entity would move in and later take property off the tax rolls. “I think this is all about tax-exempt entities” getting a foothold in industrial areas, she said. “I guarantee you if your tax-exempt entity goes into your space, we’ll have an application for tax exemption” shortly thereafter, she told Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, long a proponent of the ordinance.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, disagreed, saying that, because the ordinance still requires a special use, Council can review each application on a case-by-case basis. Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said special use ordinances can include provisions requiring almost unlimited particulars, but said he would not go so far as to guarantee that a NFP rental would never result in a tax-exempt status attaching.

Ald. Rainey was not satisfied and moved to hold the measure. Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, seconded, making the hold automatic. An effort to overturn the hold, requiring a two-thirds vote, failed 4-5, despite the fact that Ald. Braithwaite said the matter was time sensitive and that a potential tenant for that space was waiting for word.

Finally, the police review of citizen complaints has changed. Commander Diane Davis said she has removed many of the Sergeant and Lieutenant signatures that used to be required and the process now takes about 14 days. That is good news for all concerned.