Evanston City Council members showed solid support last week for a plan that would replace the current animal shelter with a new building, in an important step forward for the long-anticipated project.

At the Sept. 27 City Council meeting, a number of Council members spoke in support of a plan with middle level costs, out of three pre-design proposals to make improvements to the current building at 2310 Oakton St.

The level 2 service plan, with an estimated cost of $6 million, calls for replacing the current 2,750-square-foot building, built in the 1970s, with a new structure of 8,500 square feet.

The larger capacity would provide room for 48 dogs and 42 cats, compared with 25 dogs and 26 cats the current facility can hold.

The level 2 category has operational efficiencies associated with it, City Engineer Lara Biggs told the Council at the meeting.

The current Evanston Animal Shelter, at 2310 Oakton St., may be replaced. (RoundTable photo)

“We would increase the size of the building in order to have a sally port [secured entranceway], and this helps with impounded animal transfers. So this is very useful for the Cook County [staff members]. When they come in with an animal, they can transfer that dog or that cat into the cages. It will also be helpful for our Police Department when we do impounds.

“Additionally, we would add – expand the medical facilities,” she said. “This expansion of medical facilities would lower the ongoing costs that the Evanston Animal Shelter would have to have. It also would provide the opportunity for community spay, neuter and vaccine programs. The Evanston Animal Shelter Association has never provided those in the past, so it might take them a little while before they start to provide these services, but it would be a possibility with this level of services.”

A long history

Plans for a new facility have long been in the works. In 2010, the City pulled back from a design plan for expanding the facility to consider selling the site to an outside party.

Originally built as a dog pound, the current facility lacks enough space to properly house dogs and cats, staff said.

A makeshift cat holding room at the current shelter. (Photo courtesy of Evanston Animal Shelter Association)

Other deficiencies include a lack of a separate intake area for animals that are dropped off, lack of an isolation area for sick dogs or cats and minimal adoption facilities.

In a 2017 report to Council members, staff reported that the building did not comply with building codes, had failing building systems and needed a significant capital investment in order to stay operational.

Officials and shelter supporters began moving toward creating a new facility after Cook County awarded the City a $2 million grant to build an expanded shelter, housing some of the County’s animals. The City had requested $4.5 million.

To finance the project, the Evanston Animal Shelter Association, the large volunteer organization that runs the shelter on a day-to-day basis, is proposing to raise $1 million to go with the County’s $2 million grant. The City would then pick up all costs above $3 million.

Staff is expected to return to the Council in another month with a proposed contract for architectural services for design of a new building.

Council members would then vote on whether to move the project forward.

Cost considerations raised

Some Council members at the Sept. 27 meeting asked to see a more complete breakdown of the total costs.

From some of the preliminary estimates that came through the pre-design process, “it sounds like we’re looking at a pretty high dollar amount per square foot,” said Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward. For now, “I’m not saying it’s not necessary, but just to understand why it’s so high would be helpful,” she said.

Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said he is supportive of the project.

“I think we have a duty to ensure that we’re providing for the welfare of all of our neighbors and the community – that includes our pet friends,“ he said.

At the same time, he said, “I want to make sure that we are also financially responsible to our taxpayers. And so, I just want to make sure that we’re keeping this in a pretty tight range and that we don’t let costs get out of hand, as has occasionally been in the past.”

He cited the Fountain Square project, where the City has had to make significant repair costs beyond the initial project cost.

Reid also spoke of the need to have spay-and-neuter services, as well as a veterinarian on site, particularly for low-income pet owners who have to travel long distances to get those services. 

On the environmental features of the new building, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said he was in favor of going “as green as possible.”

In addition, he said he is interested in the costs the City might incur up front making the new building solar-ready, recognizing the savings the City would realize over the long run.

He also emphasized the importance that officials build in ongoing maintenance costs “so we don’t run into another Robert Crown [meaning the original building] or Harley Clarke, where you have 20 years into a relationship with a nonprofit and we’ve got a building that is in a decrepit state of repair.”

In that regard, he said, the City should do “whatever we can do to address that and make sure that that maintenance funds are readily available, so we’re not caught off guard.”

Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to the largely volunteer effort that currently goes into the building.

“You know, it never ceases to amaze me that we have 150 volunteers for our animal shelter, and this is essentially run by volunteers.

“There’s just clearly very strong support in the community.”

She said that while her wish is for the new shelter to be a net-zero energy building, that may be a difficult goal.

“We do have a net-zero building here in Evanston, the Walgreens on Chicago Avenue,” she noted, “and I know that that was very complicated and costs Walgreens quite a bit. And this is even more complex to building because … it’s closer, almost to a hospital in the sense of air exchanges and the types of separation that are needed.”

She agreed that having spay-and-neuter services at a veterinarian clinic on-site is important.

That way, she said, “not only do we have fewer unwanted pets but also it improves the health of all of the pets that we have in Evanston to have regular services that are affordable.”

Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, echoed Nieuwsma’s call to make the building as “green as possible.”

She also spoke in support of having services on-site.

“It seems to me that providing that surgical space and being able to offer vaccinations and spay-and-neuter services to our residents is what will ultimately help make sure that we have fewer unwanted pets,” she said, “and that’s a really important benefit to the broader community.”

Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, also stressed the importance of ongoing maintenance.

“You know, sustainability is great and all those things, but also not having a building of this kind fall apart because we don’t have maintenance is also very, very important to me,” she said.

She said she would also be willing to forgo the 1% required to be set aside for public art if that money would be used for upkeep.

“I just think public art in front of the animal shelter is not necessary, particularly as we’re trying to make sure the animal shelter has what it needs inside,” she said.

Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, spoke of the efforts volunteers currently make because of the limits of the current building.

“I mean, they’re completely stretched,” he said, using “closet space and bathrooms and in all types of things to try to make this space work,” he said, expressing his support for a new building.

Bob Seidenberg

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.