Evanston officials have placed a hold on some capital improvement projects initially planned for 2020, with the City shifting priorities in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Officials recently divulged that preliminary estimates show a $10.6 million shortfall in the City’s budget because of the virus’s effect on traditional revenue-generators, such as sales, liquor and hotel taxes, where social distancing has had strong effect.

On capital improvement projects, officials are taking into account a number of factors to decide which projects to move forward and which to delay, said City Engineer Lara Biggs in a presentation at the April 13 City Council meeting, in which officials participated through remote TV hookups because of social distancing restrictions.

Ms. Biggs cited the State of Illinois’s Executive Order on March 20, which listed the maintenance and repair of essential infrastructure as essential business.

“That includes infrastructure that is buildings, streets, water mains, sewers, all public works construction,” she explained. “So, basically, almost every type of work we do in engineering would classify under the Governor’s orders as ‘essential business.’”

Examining the issue further, officials looked at what the City of Chicago is doing, to see which projects similar to Evanston’s are moving forward, Ms. Biggs told aldermen. Another major entity, the Illinois Department of Transportation is “basically proceeding as is” with their whole construction plan, including recently awarding a Howard Street project, which is going to begin on-site construction the week after the 4th of July.

The Central Street Bridge reconstruction, another project long in the making, is getting ready to be advertised for construction. A Golf Road improvement, running from Waukegan Road to McDaniel Avenue is also a go. Officials are also taking cues from the results of a Northwest Municipal Conference survey of 22 suburbs. All those suburbs are indicating theymare moving forward with construction, Ms. Biggs reported.

“In our case,” she said, “there are different types of projects or projects in different phases to be considered,” she said. In situations where the City and contractor have entered into a signed agreement, for instance, “it becomes a little murky trying to stop those projects,” and could prompt contractors to file claims against the City, she suggested.

 For the most part, though, most of the projects moving forward are “focused largely on doing work where things have definitely deteriorated to point where we need to move forward,” she said. “There could be a very direct impact on the quality and safety of our residents.”

One project which might fall in that category is the repair of the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., though in a substantially modified form at this point. Back in the pre-pandemic times of last August, officials suggested the building was in need of as much as $17 million in repairs and upgrades, with at least $7 million of it needed in upgrades to the former school building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

For now, officials are focusing on repairs to the building’s boiler system, Ms. Biggs indicated.

  “We did one emergency repair prior to last winter,” Ms. Biggs pointed out. “We actually have another repair that we need to try to complete before this winter, which is to replace the burners of the two boilers.”

Officials are also pulling back on repairs to the City’s Public Works Service Center, located just behind the Civic Center, where problems have also been noted with the HVAC systems, as well as pavement at the site that has deteriorated to the point where the conditions are causing a lot of issues with City vehicles, which frequently use the site.

Right now, Ms. Biggs told Council members, “we’d still like to proceed with a portion of it, but reduce the project scope and funding by approximately half in order to be able to move forward with some repairs that we think are necessary for safety and which produce wear-and-tear on equipment.”

On some other projects, officials are recommending delays. “These are projects that have either not yet started or where construction is definitely needed, but we believe it’s pretty easy to survive another year without too many impacts,” Ms. Biggs said.

Projects that fall in that category include major downtown transmission main improvements, the City’s 50/50 sidewalk replacement program;  the Lincoln Street Bridge replacement and Poplar/Central parking lot projects; improvements to Beck, McCulloch Park and Pooch (the City’s dog park) parks; and restroom, security and other improvements at the City’s Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd.

In discussion, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked about the necessity of setting aside a nearly a half million dollars in design and planning of major repairs at the Civic Center, when the item was still due to be discussed in more full at a future Council meeting.

Ms. Biggs said money earmarked for those purposes is accounted for in General Obligation Bonds issued divided between 2019 and 2020. “In order to repair the boilers, it will need to come out of that pool of money,” she said.

Money left over from the boiler repairs, which are estimated at under $200,000, will be used only at the direction of City Manager and the City Council.

“We don’t have a specific project set up to be used for. But depending on what happens with the Civic Center discussion, it is then available to spend on whatever the next step is,” Ms. Biggs said.

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.