With a completion date for the new Robert Crown Community Center in sight, City officials are not through dealing with issues at City buildings.

City officials served painful notice of that fact at the Aug. 5 City Council meeting, which included an update on the City’s Capital Improvement Program for 2020-21.

 In their report, officials estimated the cost of improvements to the heating and air conditioning system at the Morton Civic Center at $7 million, saying the building could use another $5 million to $10 million in repairs as well.

For the City’s Service Center, which sits behind the Civic Center at 2020 Asbury Ave., officials estimated a $2 million to $5 million cost.

Before Robert Crown took center stage, and Harley Clarke, for that matter, the status of the Civic Center, located at 2100 Ridge Ave., often dominated discussion.

The building houses City offices and is the site for City Council and other meetings for City committees and groups.

A 2003 report by U.S. Equities Realty estimated costs of repair to the building at 2100 N. Ridge Ave. at $20 million.

At the time, aldermen took several votes in support of moving out of the building and finding another more efficient site for City operations.

 But they also met considerable resistance from preservationists fighting to save the building, formerly Marywood Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, and surrounding park from redevelopment.

Council members eventually commissioned major repairs to the building’s roof and to other systems – adopting a fix-and-replace approach, as discussion moved to another issues (such as Robert Crown Center and the Harley Clarke mansion).

At the Aug. 5 meeting, City Engineer Lara Biggs highlighted the need for repairs to the building’s HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) systems.

She said the $7 million cost is the least expensive option that would refurbish the building’s boilers and replace its heating system.

“One issue we have is that there is a substantial amount of corrosion that has occurred in the interior of the system, and so we’re finding a lot of pieces of the system are just basically failing,” she told Council members.

Work on the building’s HVAC system will have “substantial impact” on some of the building’s other systems, such as electrical, she said.

“For that reason we are proposing to start the design and planning next year to determine exactly what’s going to be involved,” she said.

The Service Center “also is having a lot of issues,” she said, including with some HVAC systems that are beyond their useful life.  The pavement at the site has deteriorated, she said, actually to the point of causing a lot of issues for the vehicles which use the lot – a condition “not great for the safety and wear and tear of them, so we would really like to go in there and do some wholesale fixes to deal with those issues.”

During Council discussion, Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, expressed caution that before aldermen “get too far down the road” on the projects, there is “more detailed discussion about these buildings.”

 In the case of the Civic Center, “I think we all know it needs lots and lots,” she said. “I don’t know if we have lots and lots to put into it, or it’s just time to retire it and go on to something that works better for our community and our staffing.”

Ald. Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, asked whether staff had a “working number on the value” of the Civic Center building. That is going to be needed, “if we’re going to make an informed decision on whether to undertake this,” he said.

Tabulating the figures, Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked Ms. Biggs whether a repair cost to the Civic Center of between $12 million and $20 million was correct.

Ms. Biggs confirmed that was an accurate figure, adding that ‘in doing that [the repair] you would be fixing a number of other problems at the building, including issues with security.

“It’s not just a security problem. The building doesn’t really provide very good service,” as currently laid out, she said. “You come in the building by a number of entrances – where do you go?”

“What do we do if something breaks next year?” Ald. Fiske followed up. “Do we tape it together? What are our options here?”

“You can continue to tape it together,” responded Ms. Biggs. “It is not very efficient, and it leads to responding to things in a reactionary way, which is not your best option.”

Ald. Fiske asked if the issue is of big enough concern that the City “should bite the bullet and do it properly, or is it something you can kind of fit in year by year?”

“This is a problem that has been more or less known for 20 years and has not really been addressed,” Ms. Biggs said. “I think the point in which we can continue to keep things in line is coming to an end.”

When the City had an issue with its feed water tank and the resulting leak, “it caused some damage to the boilers,” Ms. Biggs pointed out. “Boilers are pretty resilient pieces of equipment so that damage was able to be repaired, but the piping system for some of the water which circulates through the building  to provide the radiant heat…that’s all rusting out.”

So if a leak occurred on the top floor of the building at a time when the building was not occupied, she continued, “you could come in and find water damage everywhere. And so can you continue to live with these risks, of course you can. But then when you don’t have heat in this building, it’s a challenge.”

Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, noted that 10 years ago the City did a study to determine how much space would be needed for City operations. She said that several times the Council voted for the City to leave the Civic Center.

“But obviously we’re still here,” she said. “It is time that we revisited this issue,” updating the previous space study.

 Officials’ previous research into the subject included a very thorough analysis of every department and figuring out what staff’s programming needs were, she recalled, in a process that stretched out 10 years.

“We did go through a recession, which sort of put everything on hold for a long time,” she said. “By then we had re-roofed.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.