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At the July 13 City Council meeting, aldermen aired complaints and concerns about two capital projects that, when completed, will improve the City’s infrastructure: Central Street sidewalks and the Church Street boat ramp.
The million-dollar-plus Central Street sidewalk-replacement contract ultimately earned Council approval, but, along with the replacement of the City’s boat ramp, it may be one of the diminishing number of projects going forward in the present economic environment, according to City officials.
The Central Street project appeared first at Administration and Public Works Committee, where the engineer’s estimate, almost 30% less than the lowest bid, raised some eyebrows. Senior City Engineer Sat Nagar said one reason for the higher bid may be the timing – projects bid out in the winter generally come in lower, he said.
At Council, Director of Public Works Suzette Robinson had another explanation – a billion dollars’ worth of tollway improvements has contractors extremely busy these days. The situation, she said, is not likely to improve by changing the timing of the bid.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, remained unconvinced. She cast the lone “no” vote, arguing that the City should rebid the project at a more favorable time. Several other aldermen expressed concerns but voted “yes” anyway.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I reiterate my concern [raised in earlier meetings]. This is three blocks of sidewalk on one side of the street and it’s a million dollars.”
One reason for the high cost is a vault under the sidewalk where businesses once stored coal, said Alderman Jane Grover, whose 7th Ward includes one of the three blocks. The vault is now leaking, which makes sidewalk repair much more difficult. Mr. Nagar said filling in the vault adds about $250,000 to the project’s cost.
“The two blocks in the Sixth Ward should have been finished two years ago,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward.
In the end, a reluctant Council agreed to fund the project, in part out of safety concerns presented by the vault and voiced by Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward. But the higher bids presented an ominous backdrop for the future in Evanston. “This is just the tip of this [problem],” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. Already, a number of projects “are not going to be done this year for this reason,” he added. The bidding environment is going to “change how we approach capital projects” going forward.
Another example of the strains facing City projects came with the boat ramp renovation at Church Street. The project, when envisioned and approved by Council, was to be funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). That grant, however, was withdrawn after the election of Bruce Rauner as governor and the change of administration. Aldermen, however voted for the City to pick up the added cost – $200,000 in withdrawn grant money.
“We’re comfortable with this adjustment [to the budget],” said Mr. Bobkiewicz, “but there’s more to come from the state. IDOT has informed us that funds will not be released when there’s no state budget.”
Ms. Robinson said that projects funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation IDOT and all IDNR grant projects are now, essentially, on hold – unless, as with the boat ramp project, the City decides to fund such projects directly. For example, the controversial Ladd Arboretum bike path and the Dodge Avenue bike lane projects will both be impacted, she said.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, called for a special assessment or other tax on boat-users to cover the boat ramp cost. Boaters are already charged an annual fee of $250 (less this year due to a shortened season occasioned by the repair project) said Director of Parks Joe McRae. The ramp is also used by the City’s Police and Fire Departments as well as Parks and Recreation staff, he added.
The meeting was not all doom and gloom, as several private businesses are in the pipeline. Amy Morton, who opened Found Restaurant on Chicago Avenue in 2013, plans a new restaurant in a former stable behind 1016 Church St. “We are thrilled with the location,” said Ms. Morton. “It’s a location I looked at for Found.”
The building was constructed between 1883 and 1897, she said, as the stable for Borden Condensed Milk horse used for deliveries. The building has “stood empty or as a dumping space for storage since about 1920,” she added.
Before Council was an easement allowing access through a public alley. Council readily agreed and passed the easement unanimously.
Then there was liquor, and a flurry of licenses coming and adjusting – with no license losses. First, Smylie Brothers joined the 22 ounce bandwagon, adding the same size bottle previously allowed to Sketchbook and Temperance. Patrons will soon be able to take 22 ounce bottles of Smylie Brothers brew home with them.
Next came three licenses for businesses that are not open yet – at least one of which will not open until probably 2016. The Hyatt House, under construction on Chicago Avenue near Davis Street, is “aiming for first quarter 2016” according to a representative. Ald. Rainey questioned the need for a license in July 2015, but apparently the license is a prerequisite required by Hyatt Corporate, and Council agreed to grant it.
Class D licenses then crossed the 50-license mark in Evanston with a new license to La Principal, taking over the Lupita’s space on Main Street at Custer Avenue. La Principal plans to open in August or September. Close on their heels with license 51 was the new Giordano’s, and license number 52 went to 800 Degrees Pizzeria at 218 Church St.
Cheesie’s opted to downgrade its license from a C-1 – which allows service until 3 a.m. and costs $8,000 a year – to a C license, which allows service until 2 a.m. and costs $4,300 per year. There are now but five C-1 licenses in the City, so those looking for a beer after 2 a.m. will have one less place to visit.
Sketchbook Brewery’s planned expansion out of its alley-front store and into the Brew Camp storefront on Chicago Avenue just south of Main Street created minor controversy as resident Nikki Hiltwine complained of brewing odors, which are likely to increase with expanded space and brewing capacity.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of an issue regarding odors,” said Ald. Grover.
Shawn Decker of Sketchbook said the odor issue arose only after Sketchbook announced plans for expansion.
The odor issue was not enough to derail or delay the project, which was approved 6-0 at the Planning and Development Committee, held earlier in the evening, and on the consent agenda at Council.