The city owns and maintains roughly 60 buildings, counting park field houses.

While all have the usual issues as buildings age, six of the city’s buildings are “problem facilities” with major issues that need to be addressed, a city official said in a discussion of the city’s Capital Improvement Program Sept. 19.

Lara Biggs, the city’s capital planning and engineering bureau chief, said at the meeting the six “are getting very close to having failure of multiple building systems … with  their HVAC [heating ventilation and air conditioning], electrical and potentially other things, all at the end of their life.

“And staff does not realistically expect them to be operating in five years without major investment,” she said.

Problem facilities

Going over her list, Biggs said the Evanston Animal Shelter, 2310 Oakton St., “in addition to being entirely too small for its current use,” also has an HVAC system that is “held together with Scotch tape.”

Evanston animal shelter
The city hopes to expand its animal shelter at 2310 Oakton St.

Biggs continued, “Last  year they [the volunteers  who run  the shelter] had the compressor go out. I think they went on eBay and found a compressor part that would replace it, because legally we cannot replace the HVAC system… [without bringing] the building up to code, and there is no way to bring the existing building up to code. It doesn’t meet ADA [American Disabilities Act] or many other issues.”

The shelter has received a $2 million grant from the Cook County Animal Shelter Grant Program, and the Evanston Animal Shelter Association, the large volunteer organization that oversees it on a day-to-day basis, is the midst of a raising additional funds towards a new facility.

The city is also supposed to kick in money to replace the cramped facility. Officials have set aside $2.36 million for construction in the draft of the 2023 Capital Improvement Program budget. The cost of a new facility ranges between $5 million and $10 million.

Morton Civic Center

The Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., which houses city offices, has been an item of discussion dating back to the 1990s.

City Council
In 2009, Evanston’s civic center was renamed the Lorraine Morton Civic Center in honor of Evanston’s first Black mayor. (Photograph, Wikimedia Commons, 2010.)

Biggs told council members, “Essentially we’re getting to the point  where we need to decide if we’re going  to stay there and need to renovate, or if we’re going to build a new facility.”

The city has an ongoing study on the question, “which we’ll be talking about in the next month or two,” she told council members.

But, she said, “from the moment we decide, it’s going to take three to five years for us to be in a new building or a fix up [this] building,” she said. “It’s a big project, so it’s going to take time to pull together.”

Officials are projecting expenditures of $4.9 million in the 2023 Capital Improvement Program budget for repointing exterior brick and window replacement at 2100 Ridge Ave. Staff is also recommending budgeting $1.3 million in 2023 on consulting services to explore a move.

Biggs said water seepage has caused the failure of part of the exterior in one section of the building. “And, as we look at the windows and we look at the brick, there’s a lot of places where water can get in,” she said, point out the necessary repairs.

Evanston Ecology Center and three more

Evanston Ecology Center (photo submitted)

Issues at the Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd., were “on the radar,” Biggs told council members when the city undertook a small project to upgrade the bathrooms. In the process, staff discovered a problem with moisture getting into the building’s subfloor system.

There is now almost $1.5 million in the budget for building renovation.

The other three other problems are:

  • The Municipal Service Center, 2020 Asbury Ave., where officials estimated as much as $30 million in renovations are needed; 
  • The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., where officials are projecting $6 million plus in costs between 2024 and 2027, including $3 million to the building’s HVAC and heating system.
  • Police/Fire Headquarters at Elmwood Avenue and Lake Street, where officials are putting aside close to $6 million over the same period, including $1.75 million for renovation of the building’s holding area and offices.

Biggs observed, “These three buildings, which are 10% of our building population, are absorbing 80% of the projected General Obligation Bond for facilities next year.” She also recommended, “As a city, [we] start coming up with plans for what we want to do with our building stock long-term.”

The city draws on a number of funding sources to pay for big capital projects, including tax increment financing district funds (limited to the boundaries of  the specific TIF), Illinois Environmental Protection loans (for water and sewer projects only), more recent federal American Recovery Plan Act (for parking garage, water main and lead line replacements), and General Obligation bonds, where the cost of a project can be paid out over time with added interest.

In a memo, Briggs wrote:

“As projects are identified, the funding source is determined. City-provided funds have annual limits, and the needs far outweigh the available funding. Because of this, staff actively seek out grants and leverage the available City resources to complete larger projects for less cost.

“Outside grants and loans are most available for funding streets, transportation, water and sewer projects. Infrequently, a grant is awarded for parks projects. Facilities projects rarely receive grant funding and usually must be funded solely by City funds. Facilities projects are also not eligible for most City funding sources and are generally funded  entirely by general obligation bonds.

“The long-term consequences of relying primarily on issued debt to fund parks and facilities is that these type of projects have been substantially underfunded in the last 20 years.”

Typically, staff and council members have had discussions about the Capital Improvement Program following the release of the 2023 budget, which this year is planned for early October.

Biggs said officials recognized “that this year, it is probably time to have more detailed conversation.”

Mayor Daniel Biss, chairing the meeting, said he strongly  agreed on that last point, the need for more conversation. Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, described Biggs’s report as “very sobering.”

Plus, there are playgrounds

Earlier in the meeting and in a memo, Biggs and Stefanie Levine, the city’s Senior Project Manager in Parks and Facilities, identified an equally daunting funding challenge, upgrading city parks and equipment.

“Playgrounds have a use life of 15 years, and we have 12 playgrounds that are over 25 years old,” Biggs said. According to the list provided, 25 playgrounds are between 15 and 25 years of age.

(The expected use life comes from The Illinois Department of Natural Resources.)

Many of the older playgrounds, particularly the wood structures, also have failing equipment, Biggs said. She said a number of them are also on the city’s schedule for improvements within the next three years.

In the meantime, city maintenance staff “does what they can do, but they really don’t have a way to deal with this other than take out the equipment and wait for us to budget more money to replace” it, she said.

According to the staff memo, the city should be spending $4.6 million to fix individual amenities, such as courts, athletic field lighting and playgrounds. 

“But in reality that isn’t  doing all the other miscellaneous things,” she said. “Really the answer is more like $7 million a year that needs to be spent on parks if you want to maintain the operations that we currently have in parks – and that is a big issue and something the City Council would need to consider.”

“It’s kind of one or the other,” she said to council members. Because if the money is not there, “we’re just going to start not maintaining the operations by having to take out playground equipment.”

She said that was the situation at Fitzsimmons Park, near Nichols School at 801-849 Lee St., where “we just go in, like, every six months and remove another piece of equipment . … But these are like the choices that staff is having to make,” she told council members.

If $7 million spending is not feasible, then “we need to have better criteria,” she suggested to council members, “in how we choose to prioritize fixing parks.”

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.