Alderman Ann Rainey, right,  looks on as Mayor Stephen Hagerty and Aldermen Melissa Wynne and Donald Wilson take turns signing steel beams to be placed at the new Robert Crown Community Center.                                      Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Supporters of the new Robert Crown Community Center have thrown around terms like “NHL-sized” hockey rinks, a 200-meter indoor running track, branch library, supersized gym and more, describing some of  the attributes of Evanston’s ultra-recreation center coming on line soon.

But one gets a better appreciation for those terms walking through the building still under construction and looking down at the rink, minus ice at this point.

“This is probably one of the coolest views you’re going to get touring the job,” said Jake Hodge, project manager for Bulley & Andrews, leading the tour.

Members of the Evanston City Council, Library Board and others participated in a topping-off ceremony at Crown construction building on June 24, signing some of the final steel beams to be placed in the building.

After the signing, a number of the officials took a tour of the building, which is expected to open in December.

Alderman Donald Wilson, in whose Fourth Ward the project is located, was among officials donning construction hats. He took note of the gymnasium, which will be located on the building’s second floor.

“Having coached fifth-graders in the other gym, where you don’t have any place to spectate or sit, and the quality of the floor, all of that … this thing is going to be a game-changer,” he said.

“This is just going to be a comfortable place for so many more people. So many people already use it; and the thing we always say about the existing Crown Center, it’s about what happens there, because that’s where the adventure and the love and the friendships and relationships happen … But people deserve better space for those things to happen,” said Ald. Wilson.

City officials expect the new 130,000-square-foot Robert Crown Community Center to accommodate a greater number of programs and services in a building that will be in constant use from 5:30 a.m. until midnight.

“This is a transformative building program for us,” said Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s director of parks, recreation and community services, speaking about the project at a June 14 meeting at the Civic Center called to discuss uses of the building for community organizations.

“We think this building will be an icon – an iconic landmark in our community of Evanston,” Mr. Hemingway said.

The new building is to feature two NHL-sized ice rinks, a new branch of the Evanston Public Library, a 10,700-square-foot gymnasium, double the size of the current one; an indoor running track, multipurpose rooms and more. 

Officials are aiming to complete construction of the $53 million building – already head and shoulders over the existing center and surrounding buildings in the Main Street and Dodge Avenue neighborhood – by Dec. 1.

Crews will then begin work installing the City’s first turf fields and a parking lot where the current building sits during the first part of next year.

Officials intend “for there to be a lot of different access points – not just to the facility, but to the whole property,” Mr. Hemingway said in his presentation at the June 14 meeting.

Walking paths will surround the entire property. Mr. Hemingway said the City plans to have a Divvy bike-sharing station on the site as well.

The artificial turf fields for the site include one large state-of-the-art field, which will be multi-purpose, and can be used for football, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, he said.

Two smaller fields are regulation size but can be used sidewise to allow games for younger participants, he said.

Officials expect the turf fields to solve a major issue they have currently with the grass fields.

 “The existing fields didn’t drain very well, and once you had any kind of precipitation or rain on the fields, we had  to literally  wait until they dried out,”  said Mr. Hemingway, discussing the issue in a video the city did on the project last month.

“So it could rain today, and we wouldn’t have access to those fields for two or three days, because the fields were sloshy and wet, and just not accessible to play on. So with the new facility, with our three artificial fields, we’ll be able to play while it’s raining. We’ll have immediate access; we won’t lose time for the leagues that take place here, and so we’re really excited about the opportunities these artificial fields will provide from a playability perspective,” Mr. Hemingway continued.

The ice rinks, child-care programs, library, multipurpose rooms and more are all located on the building’s first floor, to either side off a lobby that will be spacious enough to accommodate community meetings.

Both Mr. Hemingway and Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons have talked about the synergies of having parks and recreation and library services in the same building.

At nearly 6,000 square feet, the new branch will be bigger than the City’s North Branch and Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) branch combined, Ms. Danczak Lyons noted at the June 14 meeting. It will be located next to three multipurpose rooms, which the library is to share with Parks and Recreation.

With the building in constant use, “depending on the time of day, the feel of the branch will be very different,” Ms. Danczak Lyons said at the June 14 meeting. “In the morning, we can work with story times with the preschool group; we can work with senior citizens. After school, we’re hoping that the teens that leave ETHS swing by and do some maker activities or some coding activities, some digital learning and their homework,” she said.

Library officials are also looking at ways to serve the building’s many users beyond hours. Ms. Danczak Lyons said plans call for the installation of a kiosk in the new center’s lobby, allowing patrons to check out a laptop or Chromebook and take the devices home with them.

Library Board members recently gave backing to a program called “Open Plus,” in which residents with a valid library card can use a keycard to enter the branch beyond regular hours to use its services. 

“I know I’ll never be able to staff our library from 5 a.m. to midnight – we won’t be able to afford that,” said Ms. Danczak Lyons, sounding wistful. “But I love the idea of trusting our residents with their library and having that accessible to them for study and for information-seeking.”

On the building’s second floor, officials point to the gymnasium, double in size from the current one, as a key to the building’s expanded use.

The current gym is not in use weekdays until 6 p.m. because of its location next to child care services and State regulations limiting access to the building when a child-care program is in progress.

With the gym located upstairs under the new building design, “we envision residents being able to come in for open gym, for a workout, shower and head off to work,” Mr. Hemingway said, “and that open gym could be either open basketball or open volleyball as early as 6 a.m. throughout the week.

We also look toward expanding leagues. There is huge demand for adult league play, both basketball and volleyball.”

A number of figure-skaters now participate in the center’s gymnastics program, and the new setup will allow the City to beef up the hours of that program to meet greater demand there too, he said.

The new center includes a 200-meter indoor track above the ice rink, which will be accessible from the time the building is open.

“It was one of the things that came out of our community meetings,” Mr. Hemingway said. “We’re excited about that possibility as well.”

Mr. Hemingway touched on some other differences at the larger building, including making use of classroom spaces that don’t exist in the current building. “We’ll have a dedicated fitness room, that allows us to run a variety of new fitness classes everything from Tai Chi to Pilates or yoga,” he said.

“We have that opportunity to do those things now. We’re going to have the opportunity to offer programs to our senior population,” Mr. Hemingway said, noting also the City is looking at establishing a dedicated art space. Officials have had conversations with several local providers about bringing programming to the building, he said.

At the June 14 meeting, Monique Parsons, one of a small number of residents in the audience, asked about access for community members and community organizations to the Crown fields.

“That outside space could be prime space for a lot of organizations that lack outdoor access to do things with the youth in the community,” she said. “Many of the youth in the community don’t have access space like that. Will that be open to them?”

She also asked whether the space would be open to leagues in the community outside of the AYSO, a soccer program here in Evanston, such as the Junior Wildkits and other programs.

“Those kids are from Evanston and they travel as far as Wilson and Lake Shore Drive to have their home games,”  said Ms. Parsons, who is president and CEO at the McGaw YMCA.

“The majority of them are Evanstonians and they have to pay for that – they can barely pay for the program as it is,” she said.

In response, Mr. Hemingway noted that the outdoor fields are part of a public park. Public parks are directly accessible to the public from dawn to dust.

He continued with mentioning the idea of a large field arose to address precisely this kind of need, with the Junior Wildkits as one of the groups taking part in the discussion.

“We sat and talked with everybody,” he said. “We tried to accommodate everybody’s needs.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.