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With community input and determined fundraising, a new Robert Crown Center is taking shape. The present building at 1701 Main St. has long been a target of wishful capital-improvement thinking, but in the last couple of years, the project has moved into planning.

There is no design yet, said Andy Tinucci of Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, one of the designers of the new center. He said his firm will collect ideas and concerns from community meetings such as one held on March 21 at Robert Crown, and then return, possibly in June, with some preliminary plans. In concept, though, the project is moving ahead.

Robert Crown Park will remain the site of the new center, and the present center will be in operation while the new one is built. A “gut rehab” of the building, which had been considered, is off the table for several reasons, said Peter Giangreco, who sits on the board of the non-for-profit Friends of the Robert Crown Center: The siting of the building is not the most advantageous for the outdoor fields; rehabbing the present building would not allow additional or larger ice rinks – and the hockey program is an important aspect of the center. Further, many of the donors said they wished to see a new building.

Robert Crown will remain a community center, said Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Martin Lyons. At a community meeting on March 2, a representative of Woodhouse Tinucci outlined some of the programs for the proposed 128,000-square-foot building, some of which are new and some of which are already in the present Crown Center: two (larger) ice rinks, a branch of the Evanston Public Library, meeting rooms, a pre-school, multi-purpose rooms, an indoor track, a fitness room, a gymnasium, and a room for dance.

The architect’s notes from that meeting – which can be viewed at cityofevanston.org/robertcrownproject – include, among other community comments, a “desire for strong public art; the tension between the programmed and unprogrammed exterior space …; concern about over-programming athletics and not enough space for neighbors’ uses – [walking dogs, kids’playing, and enjoyment as natural parkland]; and lighting is an important consideration in the evening for neighbors.”

Some of those concerns resurfaced at the March 21 meeting, attended by several dozen residents, and led by Mr. Lyons, Mr. Tinucci, Parks/Recreation Director Lawrence Hemingway, and Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson.

One resident asked, “Is the main idea the ice rink or is it the community center?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Lyons, with a smile. “It’s a community center for both intellectual and athletic participation. We hope to expand the programs that are offered.” Mr. Hemingway said he and Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons have had discussions on how to collaborate for programming for school-age children. “I will make sure we serve all age groups and not just the hockey players,” he said.

In response to other questions, Mr. Lyons said the City is committed to maintaining the new center but added the City would also maintain its other facilities. 

One concern, raised at both the March 2 and the March 21 meetings, was that the fields remain grass and not have artificial turf – perhaps because some documents pertaining to the new center refer to “Turf Park.” One resident encouraged his neighbors to keep eyes and ears open as to whether there would be fences, pre-fab fields, artificial turf, etc. “Be listening to stakeholders who have their own take on what’s going to happen, especially outdoors.”

Neighbors also asked about how traffic, infrastructure, and lighting would be handled. One asked that there be access to the new center from Dodge Avenue rather than from Main Street. Mr. Lyons said that the City is interested in minimizing congestion and in ensuring that all corners are safe, particularly for school children to cross. Washington School is adjacent to the center. The City is in the process of upgrading its water mains and sewer lines, Mr. Lyons said. Some of these are 100 years old or older. Having adequate water and sewer lines in place for a new Crown Center would not be an additional project for the City, he said, but a matter of rearranging scheduled replacements.

Mr. Tinucci said the architectural firms – his firm as well as its partner in this project, MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects of Toronto – have lighting specialists on staff and would be sensitive to the neighborhood.

Mr. Hemingway said the tennis courts at Robert Crown are the only lighted courts in the City, and that the lights would, as now, be turned off at a specified time each night.

Fundraising efforts by Friends of the Robert Crown Center and others have raised $7 million in cash donations and signed pledges, Mr. Giangreco said. Northwestern University pledged $1 million in the form of a “programmatic partnership agreement,” a statement from the University said, adding, “In exchange for this support package, the university will receive a slate of facility usage time slots and activities.”

Mr. Giangreco said, “The $10 million raised by FRCC combined with $10 million in GO [general obligation] bonds from the City of Evanston and $2.5 million in GO bonds from the Library would give the City Council enough to move forward on construction once the design is finished.”

Mr. Giangreco also said there is a possibility of securing grants, for example, for the library branch or for solar panels on the roof. Anyone who wishes to volunteer as a grant-writer for Friends of Robert Crown Center may email mhapp@cityofevanston.org or pgiangreco@strategygroup.com.