Evanston City Council members have long shown interest in vacating their current home at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center for a modern building better suited for government purposes.
The new standards for social distancing that will be in place once recovery begins may be one more reason to vacate the building, several argued during discussion of an item purchase at the May 11 City Council meeting.
At the meeting, which officials participated in remotely because of the social distancing standards, aldermen approved a $117, 777 purchase for a replacement burner part to the building’s aging boiler system at the building, located at 2100 Ridge Ave.
Several aldermen, though, raised concerns about the purchase, noting other costs to the building, the former Marywood School, with officials estimating full cost of a new heating and air conditioning system at $10 million.
In discussion, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, pointed to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s recovery plan and the social distancing safeguards employers such as the City will have to take once activities start up again.
Prior to the pandemic, “we talked about this building and all the work it needs to really function in the way we needed. And now there are more things that it’s going to need to function in a way that’s safe for our staff and people to use it,” she said.
The $117,000 initial cost “is not frightening to me,” she said, “but I thought as Alderman [Peter] Braithwaite said it’s kind of a band-aid, and I’d rather us have a longer conversation about the use of the Civic Center, particularly with a lot of people working at home. … We need to consider paying the $117,000 for something that we know is not going to be a long-standing repair.”
Ald. Fleming maintained she would prefer holding on to that $117,000 for another repair “we might need down the line or put that money aside to ensure the Civic Center was safe for staff and residents.”
But Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the needed burners should not be regarded as a band-aid. “If you don’t have burners on this boiler, you’re not going to have heat in the winter,” she said. “And that’s a pretty significant need for a building our size [roughly 120,000 square feet] that has so many people in it during the winter.”
Council members “can talk all you want about Covid-19 and needing money, [but] this building needs heat,” she said, arguing for the purchase.
Ald. Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, referred to the full $10 million that staff has said is necessary to bring the building’s heating and air-conditioning system up to full standard.
“We already know there are certain blind spots and security risks in this building,” he said. “We’ve had questions about replacing the windows in this building.”
Added up together, “I think now would be the ideal time to ask our staff to look into other locations for the Civic Center,” he said. “I’ve participated in many conversations over the past 10 years looking at better options. And I think just given Covid-19, the way our building is laid out, and with all the repair costs, I would like to direct our staff to look at other options.”
“We’ve talked about downtown being a possibility in the past “he continued. “I think that makes sense, just given the foot traffic that we have on a daily basis. So I think it makes sense that we explore that.”
Ald. Fleming asked staff what is the latest the City could move forward on the $117,000 to get the job done.
Public Works Agency Director Dave Stoneback recommended that the City not delay. Otherwise, “you may not get the materials in time,” he told Council members. “If we don’t fix this, you’re not going to have heat in that building this winter. Even if we’re not in the building, and you want to mothball it,” he explained, “you need some heat in here to prevent all the other destruction that would happen if it was not heated.”
Ald. Braithwaite pressed City staff to study how many of City staff would be using the building when it is returned to use.
During discussion, Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she appreciated Ald. Braithwaite’s effort “to make this [costs on the building] stretch longer.
“I think this [the burner purchase] is something we have to do to keep the building intact until we make a decision, but I agree,” she said, “looking at these other expenses, we really need to make a decision about this [the Civic Center’s future].
“This isn’t the most efficient building to operate. It wasn’t the most efficient building to operate in 2006,” she said, referring to the year before a referendum which voters backed by more than 80% in support of the Civic Center remaining Evanston’s seat of government, “and offices have really changed even more. Now [with Covid-19] they’re going to change again. Now is the time to look at other alternatives before we spend a lot of money for a building that really was never designed to be an office building.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also thanked Ald. Braithwaite for bringing up the issue.
“I think it’s important for us to consider this not only for a cost-savings, but for a use savings,” she said.
For instance, “how much more efficient would it be for our staff to be in a location where they can actually communicate with each other rather than roller skating down the long corridors?”
If the City did make the decision at some future point to leave the Civic Center, said Ald. Fiske, whose seat along with those of the other Council member comes up for election next year, “my hope would be that somebody would come along and want to do affordable housing or something creative where the building would be retained. And therefore we should take care of it, as we should take care of any of our assets until we finally decide what we’re going to use them for.”