Is it time to leave?
Evanston City Council members approved a $367,000 contract with a Chicago firm Oct. 25. They hope the resulting study will provide answers to that question for two major buildings – the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center at 2100 Ridge Ave., and Police/Fire Headquarters at 909 Lake St./1454 Elmwood Ave.
The contract Council members approved with the engineering firm AECOM calls for a feasibility study to help the City make an “informed decision on renovation versus relocation,” said Lara Biggs, the City’s Engineering & Capital Bureau chief, addressing the Council members at their Oct. 25 meeting.
AECOM’s job includes assessing the feasibility of consolidating the Civic Center and Police/Fire Headquarters into a new downtown or near-downtown facility.
In recommending the study, Biggs told Council members, “We consider that it is time to look at our options – not that it’s necessarily impossible to stay in these buildings, but that it would be thoughtful, to get better information about what would be the financial implications of the choices.”
A long history
City officials’ discussions about leaving the Civic Center date back over a dozen years. In 2007, more than 80% of Evanston voters in an advisory referendum voted in support of the former Marywood Academy’s remaining the city’s home.
Officials made a renewed push for relocation of the city government during the pandemic last year, considering a temporary move of city staff to space in the main Public Library and speaking of the needed foot traffic to the downtown it would bring.
In framing the choices before the Council, Biggs highlighted the age of the building and its needed repairs.
The first part of the Civic Center, built in 1901, is 120 years old, she noted. The second part of the building is roughly 100 years old.
Many of the systems are in need of major repairs, she said. A 2018 study estimated that more than $7 million was needed to upgrade the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, she said.
Beyond that, Biggs noted that, as an older building, “it’s not meant to be wired for modern technology, so we have a lot of issues with fiber connections, data closets, running more IT stuff,” she said, “but also basic security there as well.”
She argued that the building’s use as an office space is not ideal for other reasons too.
“There is no central lobby, nor is there one main entrance,” she wrote in her memo. “Rooms are non-standard in size, resulting in inefficiently used office spaces.
“Men’s and women’s restrooms are unevenly distributed. Hallways are wider than normal, creating more wasted space.
“The building wiring was not designed to support modern office electrical needs, and the solid walls make uniform distribution of the building Wi-Fi system a challenge.
“The existing Civic Center is approximately 120,000 square feet of space,” she continued. “If city hall were to move to a more modern office space that is efficiently laid out, a cursory calculation of space needs by staff indicates a space requirement of approximately 70,000 square feet.”
Police/Fire Headquarters in city’s focus too
Similarly, the Police /Fire Headquarters – built in 1949 to house the Evanston Police Department, the Municipal Court and a five-bay station – was originally designed for 97 people.
“It currently holds over 220 and is bursting at the seams,” she told Council members.
The building also is in need of improvements, including upgrades to the heating and air conditioning system, locker room renovations and fiber network upgrades.
“This building really doesn’t have a lot of flexibility for additional rooms for different types of buildings services, the victim services,” Biggs said.
“It’s not co-located with the social workers that are [part of the] Health and Human Services group. So there’s problems with [its] being geographically separate but also just with trying to reimagine how we would do anything differently with the building,” she said.
During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, John Kennedy, one of the heads of Friends of the Civic Center in that group’s successful effort to save the building in 2007, raised a question about the bids the City received in the project.
The bid by Cushman & Wakefield U.S. to do the project was nearly $200,000 less than AECOM, the company to which staff awarded the project.
“If you look closely, AECOM is an engineering firm, they like to build,” Kennedy said. “Cushman Wakefield, a real estate operation – they like to move people around.”
As for the new Civic Center/Police/Fire Headquarters staff was considering, he spoke of the costs officials had recently divulged were needed in maintenance at the new Robert Crown Community Center building.
“So new buildings are not a panacea,” he said.
Kennedy harkened back to the support voters showed for the Civic Center in 2007.
“They wanted to preserve it,” he said. “They liked the free parking and access and so on.”
Discussing the bid process, Biggs, a member of the city’s seven-member interview team, acknowledged Wakefield’s bid came in substantially lower than any of the other four proposals “that we had received – and that can be great, but it can also be a red flag.”
She told Council members, though, that it was in the interview process that the firm’s representatives did “not present themselves well. They frequently contradicted each other in the interview, and they themselves seemed sort of unsure about their ability to accomplish some of the tasks. So, that did not engender confidence” about what is expected to be “a really emotionally fraught complicated public engagement process,” she said.
Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, whose service on the Council dates back to 1997, strongly supported the move forward.
“I was one of the members of the City Council who voted three times to leave this building back in the aught and it was for all the those types of reasons that you [Biggs] are presenting right now,” she said. “Unfortunately, the great recession came in and dashed those plans.”
She added, “A lot has changed in those years in terms of how people office. We know a lot more about maintaining this building – costs have only grown. And we know that we do need greater synergies between our police, fire and our city staff, and that, even back when U.S. Equities did their analysis [in an earlier study], I remember how much this building was wasted space. That was quite a long time ago. So, as much as I think this is a beautiful building, it really doesn’t work well as an office building – and we’ve known that for a very long time. So I’m really looking forward to hearing what this report has to say,” she said.
Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, pointed to the nearly $400,000 cost for the study.
“I mean it’s an enormous amount of money, and it kind of suggests what we’re actually purchasing here is not so much an objective study but rather a conclusion at $400,000.”
She also expressed concern that staff in awarding the bid was “assessing this based on the interview and feelings rather than a quantifiable measurement.”
She maintained a similar practice was followed in the selection of a contractor, Walsh Construction, for the Robert Crown Community Center project where there was a $10 million difference, “because we knew them better.”
“I’d rather see evidence of experience and other measurements rather than the feelings from the interview,” she said. “That’s a large amount of money,” she said of the contract.
Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, also questioned the need for a study, noting “as a City itself as we do lots of studies, and then we do nothing with them or we do some stuff with them and then we come back a few years later and say it wasn’t enough stuff.”
There might possibly have been a previous study of the Police/Fire Headquarters even, she said.
“I get that we need to study to see what we’re going to do,” she said, “but I also wish that we can have, at some point, some other kind of conversation about ‘Do we even have interest up here?’” she said.
“I mean, it’s going to be expensive to do anything, whether we repair this building or move to a new building, and it’s not really fair to our citizens to see us spending all this money or for our staff to work on it and then we pretty much say, because the citizens [are] yelling, we’re not going to do anything.”
Wynne said, though, that the word “study” does not adequately describe the work that will be needed to go into the issue.
“I wish we had another word for study, because the analysis is a cost analysis, location analysis, what is the programming that happens from the Police Department, the Fire Department. …”
She referred to Biggs’s comment that the Police/Fire Headquarters is “bursting at the seams.”
“The building is ancient,” she said. “Look at our surrounding communities. All of them have built new police and fire [stations] in the last 40 years. I think we should get these numbers, I think just to show the public exactly how much it would cost to stay here versus consolidating and being in a location in our downtown which creates good traffic.”
The motion to move forward on a contract with AECOM passed on a 5-4 vote.
Voting in favor were Council members Wynne; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward; Bobby Burns, Fifth Ward; and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.
Voting against were Council members Kelly and Fleming; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Devon Reid, 8th Ward.