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If the City’s move of offices from the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center to space in the Evanston Public Library takes place, the change could have some benefits for both the City and Library, a City representative suggested to the Evanston Public Library Board at its June 17 meeting.
Lara Biggs, Evanston’s Capital Planning Bureau Chief, addressed the issue after Library Board member Adam Goodman observed there could be “some interesting opportunities around collaboration” and asked Ms. Biggs about possible synergies of the move.
“You know, it’s interesting that you bring this up,” said Ms. Biggs, “because when we started looking at this, a lot of it was like, Hey, we need some space.’ But as we really started to do our needs assessment and go through those services that are currently offered at this existing Civic Center, there are a lot of opportunities that mutually benefit us, and I am particularly excited about some of our social services.”
The Library has made such an investment “in delivering social services to some of the most needed populations in the City,” Ms. Biggs observed. Some of those same residents also have to come over to the Civic Center, where City offices are currently housed, for other social services, including General Assistance, she said.
“So the idea of co-locating some of those … and depending on how it works, perhaps in a more permanent sense, I think we’re really excited about,” she said.
Ms. Biggs’s appearance before the Board was the first since aldermen gave the green light May 26 for staff to start exploring underutilized space at the main library, 1703 Orrington Ave., as well as other vacant commercial space in the downtown area.
Officials have cited inefficiencies in their current building, originally built as a Catholic girls school, and the benefit of having greater foot traffic in downtown as an aid to merchants during the pandemic, among reasons in support of the move.
Supplying background, Ms. Biggs, who is also the City Engineer, told Board members “there are a lot of issues with the building, and in particular some of the problems that exist with the building’s HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning system], and with the layout of the building that’s particularly problematic.”
Currently, because of Covid-19, most of the staff is working remotely, Ms. Biggs noted. “That may continue. But, meanwhile, because the Civic Center requires substantial financial investment to make improvements, there has been a lot of discussion about whether it’s worth doing that, or [whether we] should we be looking into a new building. So this Council is investigating the possibility of putting the existing building on the market. We are also investigating exactly what our space needs are, both temporary and in a permanent way.”
At the Library, the City is looking at the third floor, which currently houses computer stations, the magazine area, as well as perhaps the building’s large assembly space, now used as a storage area for book sales.
While officials have started having conversations with Library staff, “nothing has been decided,” Ms. Biggs stressed. She said that even if a deal is worked out with the Library, it’s possible that not all of the City’s needs would be met by the Library, and some staff would be relocated to other City facilities as well.
Library Board member Benjamin Schapiro asked Ms. Biggs about the City’s timeline on the issue. Ms. Biggs said the earliest that officials would be looking to move employees and bringing them back to the office would probably by summer’s end.
Mr. Schapiro noted that the Library, with facilities currently closed, are weighing questions of their own. “Certainly as a trustee I want us to work with the City as seamlessly as possible,” he said.
In the case of the City’s possible timeline, he noted though, “September raises some issues because if we’re looking at a second peak in the Covid-19 infection rate, that’s about when it’s going to happen.” In addition, the Library plans for opening are contingent on people not getting sick.”
“So our planning on this has to be kind of careful because we may do something and then find the State’s not going to allow us to do it,” he said.
Ms. Biggs acknowledged the City was weighing similar scenarios. “So this is going to be a hybrid solution for the forseeable future. And I absolutely agree that we’re just as bound by what happens out in the world, what happens here in Evanston, and what directives we get from the State.”
Some other points that came out in the conversation centered around the use and the design of the space.
Ms. Biggs was asked how long the City envisioned using the Library for space. “I have to say that I’m not 100% sure on that,” said Ms. Biggs. “There are so many things out there right now, that it’s really hard to make definitive plans, but I would estimate it would be two to three years.”
With that timeline, Board member Margaret Lurie asked what the City’s plans were beyond that. “Do you expect the pandemic to last that long and then you’re going back into the Civic Center? What are you thinking of – what would be an ideal situation for you?”
“I think an ideal situation for us is to either develop or rent an office space in the downtown area,” Ms. Biggs said, here offering her own opinion. “I think there are some issues with the facility on Ridge Avenue in northern Evanston – it’s not necessarily central to most people in Evanston where it’s currently located. Moving into the downtown area provides better access and, as an employee that works at the Civic Center, it’s not particularly easy to get to unless you have a car and I think we serve far more people than people who have cars. And I also think that we want to encourage people to not be driving everywhere.”
About converting the space Ms. Biggs said, “I don’t think that we’re really looking at building walls or removing walls or doing any real physical changes. I think that network changes are probably one of the biggest considerations.
“Everything is tied to computers, including a lot of the Library stuff these days,” she said. “So we’re really looking at how we can do it [the move] in a way that financially makes sense, because part of the reason to do this is also related to saving money in the long term, about not investing in some of the infrastructure improvements in the Civic Center. But that makes no sense if our strategy is to build out a lot of expensive spaces somewhere else.”