Evanston officials initially requested City Council approval for major work to the Morton Civic Center’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, but took several steps beyond that at the Sept.  16 Evanston City Council meeting.

Newly named Interim City Manager Erika Storlie requested that a space study of City Hall functions at the Morton Civic Center, located at 2100 Ridge Ave., also include looking at space use at some of  the City’s other older buildings – in a proposal that received Council support.

Addressing the Council, Ms. Storlie noted, “As you know it’s not just this facility [the Civic Center] that has significant capital requirements. Police and Fire headquarters [and] some other facilities also have significant financial needs, and those perhaps also should be evaluated.

“If we are looking at a long-term solution to a long term problem, it’s possible that a combination of City functions in a consolidated facility would ease our financial burden over the long-term by putting more functions in one facility.

“So instead of maintaining a separate building for a Civic Center and a separate building for police and fire – both of which would need massive capital investments – perhaps it makes sense to look if those functions could be consolidated into one facility.”

City staff had initially recommended a space study of the Civic Center to precede a decision whether the City should move ahead with a heating and air conditioning, electrical and security project at the building.

In a report at the Aug. 5 City Council meeting, officials estimated  the cost of improvements to the building’s heating and air condition system at $7 million, and noted that the building could use another $5 million to $10 million in repairs as well.

 The staff memo  stated that at the Aug. 5 meeting, “several aldermen provided feedback that indicated staff should consider the possibility of relocating City Hall functions out of the existing Civic Center building,” prompting the need for a space study.

In the late 1990s through 2007, the City Council’s desire to move out of the Civic Center, a former Catholic girls’ school named Marywood Academy, and into a modern facility was at the center of a preservation fight.

In April 2007, residents voted “yes” by a more than four-to-one margin in support of a citizens group’s referendum asking whether the City should stay and fix up the Civic Center.

At the Sept. 16 meeting, aldermen backed staff’s request for a space study of the Civic Center and other buildings. Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, the only Council member to say he preferred staying in the Civic Center, joined his colleagues in approving the study.

“Despite the angst and anxiety this discussion just automatically creates in the community, I think it’s  important  to have it [the study], just when we were considering the [Robert] Crown project over an extended period of time,” Ald. Wilson said.

“You have to really thoughtfully approach a situation where you are going to make a very major infrastructure investment and make sure that it makes sense. Even if we were not to move … there might be other opportunities for other uses of the building.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who has been on the Council since 1998, noted that the nature of work has changed with more employees working remotely, adding to the need for a space study, “so if we were to stay [in the Civic Center] how would you arrange it?  I do think we should also, for long-range planning possibilities, look at having a true municipal center,” she said. “Currently, we’re maintaining more buildings than we need and I would like to know what our potential choices are, because this is an older building and this is just the beginning of a lot of maintenance. You know when we initially discussed this [years ago] I couldn’t imagine moving out, but I do see these large-ticket items  just marching down the road at us.”

Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also spoke in support of the study, adding, though, that if the City were to move out of the building “I certainly don’t want the building taken down.”  She said she could see repurposing the building “for affordable work space or affordable something. I can see a townhouse on the site, I can see a lot of different things… and that’s not to say I endorse any of them. But it’s to say if we’re going to have a conversation, let’s hold a far-reaching conversation.”

Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said tearing down the building should be on the table too. If a developer were to buy the property to build on it, “It doesn’t make economic sense…to invest so much money and then turn it into some kind of affordable housing project.” For that reason, he said, tearing down the building should be listed among the options.

“I mean, we’ll probably be a totally different Council by the time we have to make a decision on it,” he added.

Speaking at the public comment session earlier in the meeting, John Kennedy, one  of  the residents  who spearheaded the 2007 referendum, said “it  feels like deja vu again.”

In contrast, to the discussion 15 years ago, he said, “it seems like the Council wants to move, the staff wants to move, at light speed.

“Back then there was a special Civic Center committee set up to look at the alternatives, price things out, ask good questions and receive comments from citizens.”

Ms. Storlie said staff would next prepare a Request for Proposal on the space study, returning to the Council within the next month or two on the issue.

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.