City officials have concerns about the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center’s ability to handle customer services once restrictions ease up.

Evanston aldermen raised some concerns but were mainly in support of a staff recommendation to do a gradual relocation of offices from the City’s Civic Center home to the main public library and other City-owned sites.

The Council’s move came after a staff report maintained that the Civic Center was not equipped to handle customer service and other public functions once restrictions eased, and the building would require extensive changes.

Addressing the City Council members at their July 13 meeting, Lara Biggs, the City’s Engineering and Capital Planning Bureau Chief, acknowledged that  “a complete relocation — just because we’d be moving to a number of different buildings — does require some modern building changes.

“But staying at the Civic Center “ she said, “actually requires us to make some serious changes to the building, which is what we have actually been trying to avoid doing and looking for other solutions.”

She told aldermen that the Civic Center, a onetime Catholic girls school,  is particularly challenging because of the way its first floor is laid out, “carved up into spaces, and it would really require a holistic remodel of a section of the first floor in order to get to that one-stop shop for all customer service.”

She also pointed to the cleaning efforts complying with the sanitation procedures in play under State guidelines.

Officials had previously given other reasons in support of a move during the pandemic. These included the cost of repairs to the Civic Center’s heating and air conditioning system as well as the foot traffic a City building would bring to the downtown where businesses have lost customers because of the COVID-19 virus.

Ms. Biggs in her report said that staff had determined that space on the east side of the third floor of the Evanston Public Library at 1703 Orrington Ave. does not have adequate space for relocating the entire Civic Center operation.

In that light, staff is recommending that   “public-facing”’ operations be relocated to the Library, where a one-stop customer service desk would be installed.

Meanwhile,  other City departments and functions, such as permits, administrative adjudication, Health & Human Services would be split among a number of City buildings, including Gibbs Morrison Cultural Center, 1823 Church St., and the new Robert Crown Community Center, at Main Street and Dodge Avenue.

The phone transfers would be done in phases, over a time period of 36 months, according to staff’s estimate.

In discussion, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, raised concerns about the limits of the library space.

People coming to that location to pay tickets, for instance, then “have to

find a parking space, pay the meter down … You’re adding on some more frustration,” she said.

She argued that Robert Crown, though “it obviously was built to serve another purpose,” might make more sense.

“It’s a little bit more of a welcoming space,” she noted. People coming there could do other things, such as sign up for a class, she said.

Further, she pointed out, “We don’t know the future of the Civic Center. We don’t know how long we might temporarily be in the Library, but we do know we’ve already paid a substantial amount of money for Robert Crown, and we’re trying to get people in there. They can do a variety of things when they’re there and also not pay for parking, which will become, I think, a huge thing.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, raised concerns about the staff plan, calling it “fragmented,” parceling out services to multiple sites.

“I think we’re making a mistake,” she said. She suggested the City approach the issue similar to the City Manager search process.

“I think that we should go to the public,” she said. “I don’t think the public’s going to want to move.”

If the City needs to do a new air purifying and heating and air conditioning system – officials had cited the poor condition system in support of their initial recommendation for a move – “I think it would be worth the cost,” Ald. Rainey said.

But Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, argued that “we have to think very long term – so I support us gradually stepping away from the Civic Center. I think the cost of retrofitting that building is so much more expensive than we ever realize, and it’s an inefficient building. So, in our future we are going to have to have cleaner air, cleaner surfaces, cleaner buildings, and we need to have a space that’s designed to accommodate that in the most efficient way.”

In agreement, Alderman Judy Fiske, whose First Ward includes the Library, said a service desk at that location “makes a lot of sense, for lots of different reasons.“

“There’s an incredible amount of parking there,” she said. “It just couldn’t be more convenient for folks who want to come and use the Library and also get some City work done. It adds to the vitality of our streets downtown, which are certainly going to be challenged for the next couple of years.”

Also the decision would allow officials “to do something exciting” with the existing Civic Center building, she said, combining affordable housing and some market-rate units.

She said such a plan could retain “the historic quality, not only of the site, but also do a nice infill development that actually says a lot of positive things about our community and the direction that we’re moving into.”

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, whose Fifth Ward includes the Civic Center building, argued, “There are two very important discussions that the community needs to weigh in,” before the City gets to that point.

First, she said, “We need education on why the [Civic Center] building is so inefficient. And what are the safety and security concerns? And what would be the benefits of relocating to a downtown area or using our Parks and Recreation facilities more?

“And, as importantly, what would be the proposed next use for the Civic Center? What does it mean to the park [Ingraham Park which surrounds the Civic Center]) plan? What do the neighbors in proximity to that facility – what would they like to see?”

“We need to educate the community,” she observed, “and it seems that this conversation is advancing pretty, pretty swiftly without much council input or community engagement.”

Aldermen backed the idea of creating committees to explore those questions.

“I think, for me, this has always been about the recovery period and making sure that we’re able to deliver our most vital services to our residents,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. “And I think the conversation of selling and what to do with the land is a little bit premature. We’re not there yet.”

He favored moving forward with the process, feeling “it’s important just for functions and more importantly for the safety of our staff, and then we need to be able to collect our revenue in a very safe environment.”

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.