Cheap fix for Civic Center eyed

Evanston aldermen tonight voted to have city staff prepare estimates of what it would cost to make minimal repairs to the Civic Center to make the building safe for city workers.

Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, proposed the new approach, saying it’s clear taxpayers can’t afford the roughly $50 million latest estimates say it would cost to completely rehab the existing building or build a new city hall elsewhere.

In addition, she noted, despite years of effort, the City Council has failed to agree on a site for a new building.

Tisdahl suggested the scope of work should include replacing the building’s roof and tuck pointing the exterior to stop leaks and cleaning up mold problems caused by the leaks.

"Let’s make the building healthy," Tisdahl said, "but just do the minimum to provide workers with a healthy and safe environment until we’re in a financial position to come up with a better solution." She suggested $6 million might cover the essential work.

Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, said Tisdahl’s proposal "doesn’t make any sense."

He said having employees in the building while work was underway would subject them "to the most unhealthy atmosphere imaginable." He said he feared it would lead to "a huge number of lawsuits" by city workers.

But Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said that what had looked like good options for a new Civic Center have evaporated, construction costs "have shot into outer space" and the public safety pension problem has added millions of dollars of new expense to the city budget.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste suggested dropping all plans for a move. "My position is to invest in this building and stay here."

"The reason we have not moved is we have not had a place to move to," Jean-Baptiste said. "Let’s make a decision, minimize the cost and be firm in terms of direction. We have no reasonable alternative."

Facilities Superintendent Dave Cook said that so far the only mold that has been found in the building has been innocuous. "It’s bread mold," he said. But he added that unless the roof leaks are fixed, mold will continue to build up, and some of it could be hazardous.

Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said he feared that whatever initial cost estimates were developed for a minimalist rehab project would escalate dramatically, as the cost estimates have for full-scale rehab and building a new Civic Center.

City Manager Julia Carroll said that borrowing about $50 million to completely rehab the building or construct a new one would require payments of $3 million to $3.4 million a year for 30 years, depending on interest rates at the time the bonds were sold.
That would increase the city’s total property tax levy by 8 to 9 percent, on top of the 7 percent increase approved by the council in February for the current fiscal year.

Tisdahl’s motion was approved 8-1, with Moran casting the only dissenting vote.

The new staff report is expected to be ready in about 60 days.

John Kennedy of the Friends of the Civic Center group that has urged staying in the current building said he congratulated the council on the decision to take the new approach.

The council has been considering alternatives for the Civic Center for at least the past 10 years. The city moved into the building about 30 years ago after a rehab job that converted it from its original use as a Catholic school for girls.



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