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Evanston officials are promoting a new reason for vacating their longtime governmental home at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., and setting up shop elsewhere.
A meeting ago, some aldermen had cited the pandemic and the changing conditions for work forces as a reason to explore a temporary alternative location, more efficient than the roughly 120,00-square-foot Civic Center, a former school.
At the May 26 City Council meeting, staff suggested the City explore occupying underutilized space at the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., or leasing vacant commercial office space in the area. Officials pointed out the potential benefits to Evanston small businesses a downtown location would bring.
“The increase in foot traffic from City employees and constituents visiting City Hall will be a critical boost to aiding local businesses in recovering from the pandemic,” City Engineer Lara Biggs said in her report. “The relocation of the Civic Center to downtown would equate to attracting a small business headquarters. If students do not return to campus this fall, it will be even more important for additional foot traffic in the downtown to aid in creating a thriving downtown Evanston after the pandemic.”
In recent meetings, aldermen have put the issue on a fast track, even in the midst of the pandemic and a once-in-four-years municipal election next year in which new people could be occupying their seats.
In an April 2007 advisory referendum, residents voted by more than 80% to keep City offices in the Civic Center and rehab the building. Officials say conditions are different this time, and point to another round of expensive repairs to the building’s Heating and Air Conditioning system.
Speaking at the May 26 meeting, Interim City Manager Erika Storlie suggested that it would be prudent to evaluate the option, noting that downtown businesses “are in a state of distress and would benefit greatly from an increased amount of foot traffic that could be provided if we were to locate a temporary Civic Center in the downtown.”
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he had particular interest in the Library as a temporary site, with the City already the owner of the building.
Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also expressed interest, maintaining “that it was probably a mistake years ago” for the City to have moved the Civic Center from a downtown site, then on the corner of Davis Street and Sherman Avenue.
Plus, she maintained that, “Anything that we can do to be forward thinking in terms of support for our Central Business District will just have benefits throughout Evanston.
“Clearly, when we made the decision to acquire the Civic Center (formerly the Marywood Academy) it was for a song,” she said, “and it seemed to be a good idea at the time, (but) I don’t think we ever anticipated that we would have the kind of maintenance costs that we have; and I think the report about how many square feet there are per employee in the building and cost of repairs simply doesn’t make sense for us right now.”
She cited as another factor “the building of the new Library at Robert Crown (farther south and west at Dodge Avenue and Main Street), which has helped us distribute the wealth of the Library throughout the City.”
Looking ahead, Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, in whose Fifth Ward the Civic Center is located, also said she was encouraged by the possibility, “specifically for the public benefit, and very encouraged to see what new development we might be able to welcome into the Fifth Ward workforce housing – some sort of affordable housing component.”
Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, however, sought more economic analysis to back up staff’s contention that a move to downtown would product positive benefits.
With City employees being asked to take unpaid work furloughs, and residents whose work status has been affected by the pandemic facing unpaid water bills, “unless there’s something I’m missing … I don’t know we’re going to get the guaranteed economic impact that’s being presented as a reason to consider this,” he said.
Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Manager, agreed that assumptions about the economy have to be put on hold because of Covid-19, but said there was “no question there would be a benefit” in placing City operations downtown.
“A general rule of thumb is that office workers spend about $100 a week in the place they work, both shopping and eating,” he told aldermen, in support of the economic impact.
“Prior to COVID, we were having a retail downturn – ‘What do we do with vacant spaces?’ ‘What do we do with the street level spaces that are kind of fading away?’” he said. “So adding more people to the downtown will help the remaining businesses that were struggling before COVID.”
Ald. Suffredin responded that he did not have an interest refuting anything that Mr. Zalmezak said, but said, “If this body was good at long-term planning, I don’t think we’d be in a situation where we have a civic center that is falling apart and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.”
Ald. Fiske, whose ward includes the Library and a portion of the downtown district, said in such areas, “you look at what your anchors are going to be,” and while “we haven’t been lucky for long time to have a retail anchor — we certainly have the library and now, if we chose to do the Civic Center in the downtown, that’s just an additional anchor.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, introduced an additional element to consider. If the Library were the preferred use, “I don’t think we should share it with anybody,” she said “If we’re going to have it we should have it for ourselves. It should be ‘La City Hall.’”
She indicated parking would be another concern if the downtown area was used. “We have a large following of citizens at City Hall,” she observed. “It’s not all daytime [activity] – coming to pay your water bill. It’s people who come to City Hall at night. And I’m thinking of walking down those [downtown] streets and going into a parking garage at night, after one of our meetings at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock. The Library is not convenient for very late night time meetings of large people and large crowds. The Civic Center – you can’t get any more convenient with the parking.”
Looking at the possibility of an “aggressive time line,” Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, asked staff when they thought “we could make this move happen.”
Ms. Storlie said officials first need to hold conversations with Library Board members, “and then start looking at what makes the most sense.”
She told aldermen she was confident all the information could be gathered in time for a discussion at the Council’s second meeting in June.