Evanston aldermen Monday night directed city staff to move forward with plans to create a temporary one-stop customer service desk for city operations on the third floor of the downtown public library.

City Engineer Lara Biggs offered a presentation that indicated only about 30 city staff would relocate to the new space, while the other roughly 130 employees who formerly worked at the Civic Center on Ridge Avenue would continue to work remotely, as they’ve been doing since the Civic Center was closed following the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biggs estimated that it will cost about $75,000 to adapt the 5,800 square foot space for the new use. She said that much of that cost would stem from adding new electrical and internet connections that would still serve the library well if the city employees later moved to another site.

She said relocating all Civic Center staff to a new site, even whle continuing to have staggered schedules and removte work would require at least 15,000 square feet of space.

And that would not include space for a City Council Chamber or public meeting rooms, nor space to store large quantities of documents that have never been digitized.

She suggested construction of that new facility could cost $400 per square foot, plus the cost of land purchase or lease. So the price tag for that 15,000 square foot facility would be $6 million plus the land cost.

Adapting the existing Civic Center for new COVID-19 mandated safety requirements, she said, would cost at least $125,000 per floor, not counting a projected cost of $12 million to $17 million in long-deferred HVAC and electrical system upgrades. And the need to improve ventilation to reduce spread of the virus likely makes the HVAC upgrades even more urgent.

Biggs said it appears that under the state’s pandemic rules public meetings will likely continue to be held virtually for at least the next several months and that there are several options for holding meetings after that — ranging from using the Civic Center only for evening meetings, or holding meetings in a gym or larger room at a city recreation center or using board meeting or auditorium space of other organizations, like the school districts.

Biggs said the library solution would also minimize maintenance costs for the added cleaning required by the pandemic and give the city more flexibility to respond to changing conditions.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, objected to the library idea saying it would require people to pay for parking. But Interim City Manager Erika Storlie said the city could provide a parking validation option for people who visited the library to conduct city business. She added that the library is also more accessible by public transit than the Civic Center.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she doubted the public would want to have the city move from the Civic Center. “If we need to do a new HVAC system, we should do it,” she said, “It would be worth the cost.”

But Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the HVAC cost would be enormous and that she liked the idea of consolidating the customer service desk function.

“Don’t let a crisis go to waste,” Wynne added.

Aldemran Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said the Civic Center is totally inefficient, that there’s plenty of parking downtown and moving operations there would bring more residents downtown to shop at local businesses.

Fiske suggested that the Civic Center site could eventually be used for a combination of affordable and market-rate housing.

But, Mayor Steve Hagerty said in summing up the discussion, that would have to wait for “a much more robust and detailed conversation about the long-term future of the Civic Center property.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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