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Aldermen keep options open on Civic Center

Evanston aldermen last night voted to indefinitely delay a decision on local landmark status for the Civic Center while they seek proposals from developers to renovate the building for residential use.

The vote was a partial victory for preservationists who’ve fought to save the building, constructed early in the last century to house a Catholic girl’s school and converted in the 1970s for use as the headquarters of city government.

The aldermen, meeting as the Planning and Development Committee, still voiced support for their goal of moving city offices to new quarters, possibly as part of a plan to spur economic development on the city’s west side.

They contend that selling the Civic Center site at 2100 Ridge Ave. to a private developer is the best way to generate the funds needed to build the new office space.

A city consultant has estimated that it would take $20 million to rehabilitate the Civic Center for continued governmental use and that the city could acquire new office space for about the same price.

The consultant, Martin Stern of U.S. Equities Realty, in a memo to aldermen this month, said federal tax credits available for redeveloping historic buildings could not be used by the city to rehab the building for its own use, or by a private developer who would lease the building back to the city.

Nor, he said, would a condominium conversion project qualify. But, he added, under certain circumstances a private developer restoring the building for rental as commercial space or apartments could benefit from the tax credits.

“The economic benefit can help but may not be compelling and does add additional risk for the developer,” Mr. Stern said.

The preservationists generally favor keeping city offices in the current building but have expressed their strongest opposition to having the building demolished.

“I think we’d all hate to see the building torn down,” Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “perhaps we can come up with some bonus for a developer willing to work with this property, just like we do for developers who hire minority contractors.”

The preservation ordinance includes a provision, designed to protect building owners from unreasonable delay, that requires the city council to act on a Preservation Commission recommendation within 120 days.

But after city attorney Herb Hill told aldermen that as the building’s owner they could agree to waive the deadline, they voted to do just that.

Accepting or rejecting the landmark status now “shoots ourselves in the foot,” Alderman Steven Bernstein, 4th Ward, said.

“I have no problem keeping this building, to the extent that we can get the building rehabbed by a developer,” Ald. Bernstein said, “but we have no funds to draw from to fund the rehab ourselves.”

The aldermen agreed that no rehab proposal could be developed and complete the review process within the 120-day deadline.

John Kennedy, head of the preservation group Friends of the Civic Center, said, “I’m very much in favor of the delay.” He added that several developers have informally expressed interest in doing a conversion of the building.

Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, said, “We don’t want to limit our options at all. Making it a landmark affects its marketability. I think we’re agreed that we’re moving city hall, so the best solution would be to rehab the building for residential use.”

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