Large block letters on the east window wall of the gymnasium spell “EVANSTON.” The gym can be divided for smaller uses or used as an event space for up to 499 people.

During the soft opening of the new Robert Crown Center – resuming after the COVID-19 lockdown – the City and the Friends of Robert Crown have received so much positive feedback they say they hope even its longtime critics will come around.

The position of this new building, near the corner of Main Street and Dodge Avenue rather than in the center of the block as was its now-demolished predecessor, allows greater use of the surrounding green space. 

The 230,000-square-foot Turf Park will accommodate teams playing soccer, lacrosse and field hockey. With a bicycle path around the perimeter and new trees augmenting the sturdy stand of mature trees, neighbors will still have some of Crown Park to enjoy. The tennis courts along the south side of Lee Street act as a buffer for the houses across the way.

“Dodge Avenue is the spine of Evanston,” said Daniel Stein as he and Pete Giangreco took two visitors on a tour of the facility last month. With the high school and Gibbs-Morrison to the north and the Levy Senior Center to the south, he said, the Robert Crown Center is in the right place. Mr. Stein is president and Mr. Giangreco is secretary of Friends of Robert Crown Center, a not-for-profit organization raising funds for the facility.

“Light is the theme of the Center,” Mr. Stein said – “light and transparency.” There are windows in most of the interior rooms and few solid walls in this 130,000-square-foot building. 

“The natural light is one of the ‘wow’ factors, in addition to the programming,” said Interim City Manager Erika Storlie. “The old Crown Center was dark and dank. … “When people get a chance to go into it, they will be completely blown away – the reading room, the reading garden, the multipurpose rooms, the library …” 

Ms. Storlie, City Engineering and Capital Planning Bureau Chief Lara Biggs and Senior Project Manager Stefanie Levine oversaw this multi-million-dollar project, one of the largest public works on the North Shore in recent times.

The building is a hybrid, said Mr. Stein, combining recreational and educational uses: two ice rinks, a walking/running track, a basketball court, a library branch, multipurpose rooms and a preschool. 

“The concept of having all the educational resources and the recreation resources in one – we found four facilities that do that,” Mr. Giangreco said.

The Structure

The scale, multiple uses, natural light and programmatic transparency of the new Crown Center building were crucial considerations in the design of the building.  

The building was designed by Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, with MJMA (from Toronto) as the collaborating architecture firm. The exterior is a careful composition of solids and voids, where a priority was to provide a connection to the outside.  All major spaces have natural daylight, often from overhead clerestory windows.

From the interior, the major program spaces are overlapping, with visual connections between them. Windows also wrap part of the first floor, providing views of parkland to the east. 

Also affecting the design was energy usage.

One of the architects, Brian Foote of Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, stressed that a priority was to capture waste heat from the ice refrigeration system.  “Reject heat” is reused for domestic water heating, and for subgrade frost protection, as well as to provide radiant heat to warm the seats of spectators at the large rink and for the melt pit for the rinks. 

While capturing waste heat within the ice rink system is fairly common, in this case the intent was to maximize this throughout the building so that it can work for overall building systems, as he says, “in the best way possible.”  

The mechanical engineers were involved in the project starting in the design phase when a number of systems were considered and evaluated on the basis of the initial cost versus the payback period.

The building has an air-filtration system that allows for a high level of outside air changes. These air-change requirements are determined by the athletic nature of some of the building’s uses and contribute to improved indoor air quality.

The cooling tower on the north side of the building was designed with sound-attenuation materials to comply with City code. 

All other mechanical components are within the building or in fully concealed roof areas.

The building is prepped to accept rooftop solar panels that could meet 5% or more of the building’s electrical needs. Ms. Biggs said the City has looked into different arrangements for partnering with a private company for the installation of the solar panels but has not yet determined the best way to proceed. 

Lighting controls are sophisticated and maximize efficiency by using daylight sensors to automatically dim lights near windows. The lighting system is 100% LED fixtures and includes occupancy sensors.  In addition many of the window shades have a separate automated control system.  

The exterior glass is treated with frits (or texture), which not only help prevent bird collisions but also reduce glare by diffusing the light coming in.

Mr. Foote noted that many ice arenas are “opaque boxes” with no daylight or views in or out.  In this case, the architects designed translucent clerestory windows that let daylight into the ice rink spaces in a way that is not detrimental to the users.

There are night-sky friendly lights in the parking lot and on the playing fields.

All plumbing fixtures in the building have water-saving features.  

A huge storm-water storage system is installed under the playing fields to manage run-off from the building, parking lots and the fields.

Mr. Foote commented that this building type, which combines athletic uses with community uses is extremely rare in the U.S.  He added that his firm, which also designed the Clark Street Beach House and the Northwestern Sailing Center, approaches design in the same way, whatever the scale. 

Recreation

Two full-size ice rinks, a 200-meter track and a basketball court are the indoor recreational highlights of the facility. The Chicago Young Americans Amateur Hockey Club donated $500,000. They will have four girls teams playing at the center, and there will be two other teams composed primarily of Evanston girls, Mr. Giangreco said. “More girls will play hockey here than any other place except Fifth Third arena.”

He says he also hopes the City can bring sled hockey to Crown. Called sledge hockey in Canada and Europe, sled hockey is a sit-down version of hockey “for players whose disability prevents them from playing stand-up hockey,” according to moveunitedsport.com, which notes, “How Is It Played? There is little difference in sled hockey and stand-up hockey. The goal is still to put the puck in the net.”   

Mr. Giangreco said that over the last three years he has spoken with JJ O’Connor, who chairs USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, about the possibility of starting a sled hockey team at Robert Crown Community Center so they can play against the Hornets, a sled hockey team that plays at the rink in Mount Prospect, and perhaps other local sled teams.

“JJ even gave us some design pointers on the plexiglass benches on both rinks and gave advice on designing areas where people with disabilities might sit that do not have guard rails obstructing the view of someone in a wheelchair.”  

Plexiglass shields on the top level of seating in the main ice rink allow that viewing.

One of the rinks is set up for sled hockey, Mr. Giangreco said, adding he would like to see Crown host USA sled hockey, or even blind hockey players. Blind Hockey is played with an adapted puck that makes noise and is both bigger and slower than a traditional puck.

Sled hockey tournaments are on hold because of the pandemic, Mr. Giangreco said, but added, “We hope to start to look at the feasibility of recruiting a sled team in 2021 for the 2022 season once USA Hockey protocol on the virus has had a test run in the upcoming 2020-21 season.”

Ice, Mr. Stein said, is the economic engine of the facility. “Operating expenses of the old Crown Center were $1.8 million with a revenue of $1 million – an $800,000 annual shortfall. Both revenues and expenditures will increase with the new Crown Center, but they will not double: With operating expenses projected at $2.2 million and revenues at $1.8 million, the net annual loss will be halved, to about $400,000.”

The word “EVANSTON” hangs above the gymnasium. It has two concrete floors and springs in between them to absorb the shock and the noise and not disturb the library directly below.

There was a demand for turf, Mr. Giangreco said. “Evanston had no turf for girls’ field hockey. Oak Park has 310,000 square feet of turf. Turf Park will have 230,000 square feet for baseball, soccer and lacrosse teams.  

Ms. Storlie said she believes the City’s special recreation division will use the building. “We have a really good special recreation department … I think you’ll see a lot of that.”

Community Center

“Everybody in Evanston can find a part they will like: the running track, the walking track, the meeting rooms, the library,” Ms. Storlie said. 

The gym can double as an event space for nearly 500 people or be divided for smaller functions. “It’s the biggest event space in Evanston – it will hold 499 people,” Mr. Stein said.

Multipurpose rooms, which overlook the athletic fields, will accommodate community meetings, birthday parties and the like. 

The Crown Center preschool was never able to attain accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Mr. Giangreco said, because of the facility itself – the room sizes and the bathrooms down the hall. “One of the changes to the architecture was to bring natural light into the preschool.”

“[The preschool] is a secure space, completely safe,” Mr. Stein said. “Kids may come outside to read on the portico near the berms, but the playground will be elsewhere.”

A versatile community kitchen could host classes, serve as a concession area and provide the infrastructure for events at the Community Center, Mr. Stein said. The Parks and Recreation Department is still working on the programming, he added.

“We are looking for synergy – drop your kid off and attend an ESL class or use the track,” said Mr. Giangreco. He also said,

“We’re going to go after programming if it’s directed at under-served kids.”

Open Studio Project will have programming at the new Crown Center, and Ms. Storlie says she hopes to expand it to other community centers. The mission of Open Studio Project is “to utilize and bring the creative process to people of all ages and backgrounds, and to empower them to turn to art for personal growth.”

Northwestern University would like to use the facility “for a lot of interesting STEM stuff – a great opportunity with mentoring from Northwestern students,” Ms. Storlie said. 

Challenges and Collaboration

Even before the first plop of concrete into the foundation, construction and engineering crews found challenges. 

“The soils were very, very soft in this site in general,” said Ms. Levine. “When you see properties out there that are turned into parks, it’s because they’re not buildable – historically, maybe a swampy, wet area. … People had to make it stable enough to hold a building. We worked with the contractor, the architect, structural engineers – and found multiple solutions, depending on what part of the facility was being built.” 

Ms. Storlie said she found challenging, too, “the long start to get it off the ground without support from the community or fund-raising. [Even now] I’m trying to educate and inform the public on misinformation.”

One piece of that misinformation, she said, is the cost of the project. “The cost is about $53 million. The City will receive $15 million from the Friends. That will reduce the bonds and [other] costs. We borrowed $43 million.”

Mr. Stein and Mr. Giangreco said they felt the Friends of Robert Crown Center helped forge partnerships between the City and other institutions.

“One of the problems is that Evanston is siloed – School District 65, the library,” Mr. Stein said. “We would leverage off of that [with] a new collaborative spirit. The Friends of Robert Crown Center help bridge the gap and got people out of their silos.”

“We held 20-30 public meetings – depending on whether you count City Council meetings,” said Mr. Giangreco.

Earlier, Ms. Biggs told the RoundTable  she appreciated that “a lot of people have been involved, from residents and stakeholder groups to Friends of Robert Crown and our own City staff.  I don’t think I have ever worked on a project where there has been such a community effort.  Although there have been some concerns expressed, which is understandable for such a large, transformative project, the fact that so many have worked together to make this happen is actually the coolest part of the project.”

Mr. Giangreco said, “I love the building, but it’s what happens in the building that matters.”

Mr. Stein said, “We connected people with the City. … We helped the City make good decisions. … At the end of the day – we built something good for the community.”

Ms. Storlie said, “This isn’t just a sports facility – it’s an education facility – we’re limited only by our imagination.”

Library

The linchpin of the new Robert Crown Center is the library, said Mr. Stein. “That was the key.” He noted that the Evanston Public Library is on the cutting edge of many programs. “It was one of the first libraries in the country to have a full-time social worker. It is helping to address the digital divide. … 

Jill Schacter, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Library, said, “The Robert Crown branch will be a visible testament to the Library’s continued exploration of what equitable access to resources means. A critical feature will be the extended-hour system that will allow Library card holders access to physical materials and computers both before and after regularly staffed hours. Also, many programs at Robert Crown will be bi-lingual, laptops and Chromebooks will be available for checkout, and the library will be a point of Wi-Fi access and digital literacy in the neighborhood.” 

Miguel Ruiz, who will be the supervising librarian at the Robert Crown branch, said the library is hoping to expand its existing partnerships and would welcome new ones.

“We plan on exploring ESL [English as a Second Language], citizenship, and other programs that have a positive impact, particularly for our immigrant communities. … We are planning programming that we hope will reach numerous residents. These include computer classes, personal finance and healthcare workshops, teen STEAM programs, youth literacy programs, civic engagement and sustainability programs, to name a few. In addition, we want to establish trust and deep relationships with our communities in order to develop community-led programming. We strongly believe this is a core facet of looking at programming from an equity lens, where residents are empowered to lead their own self-development and education using the library as a conduit and facilitator.” 

The Library is committed to making the Crown branch a fully bilingual library, Mr. Ruiz said. “We have Spanish titles reflected in all of our collections at the branch, from board books to our fiction collection. Almost half of our staff is bilingual in English and Spanish, and we are continuously working with our colleagues to purchase and develop our Spanish collections. We additionally provide reference services for our Spanish-speaking populations, in order to navigate City services and other valuable resources.” 

Mr. Ruiz said he and the staff are eager to welcome patrons to the new branch. “We’re so excited to be situated in this wonderful new community center with our City colleagues and can’t wait to develop relationships, friendships, and trust as part of our community and to really make an impact in people’s lives.

“Whether it’s through finding that title that changes your perspective or attending a community-led program where you meet new friends, we want to be there for our community. It’s their library, after all.”