Interim City Manager Erika Storlie told Evanston aldermen Monday night that there’s still no clear plan for how to reopen the Civic Center once the COVID-19 pandemic eases enough for most office workers to return to their jobs.
Storlie said she’s concerned that poor air circulation in portions of the building might make it unsafe for workers to return and that she’s has asked the city engineer to investigate that issue.
“I’m not saying that is the case,” Storlie added, “but we just don’t want people to come to the building and get sick.”
Storlie said about 250 people normally work in the 140,000 square foot Civic Center, which was built a century ago as a private high school.
That would means the building has about 560 square feet of space for every worker, which is huge by contemporary office standards and might be assumed to provide ample space for social distancing.
But Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said some offices in the building are quite cramped. “The collectors office, the place we collect revenue, is way too confined and won’t work,” Braithwaite said. Administrative adjudication will not work either, he added.
Storlie said she anticipates that many staff “will be working remotely for quite some time,” but that the city will need to sort out the best way to provide public-facing services.
It’s “an evolving conversation” with managers of city units, Storlie said, “and I don’t have a complete answer for tonight” about how to provide services effectively and safety.
She said she hoped to have more information for aldermen by the next City Council meeting in two weeks.
Braithwaite suggested this would be “an ideal time to ask staff to look into other locations for the Civic Center.”
He suggested a new location in downtown Evanston “would make sense” given the amount of foot traffic there and its centrality for all city residents.
Fiske said it would be much more efficient “to be in a location where workers can communicate with one another rather than rollerskating down the long corridors.”
But she said she’d want to see the existing building preserved, and perhaps turned into affordable housing.
City staff last August estimated the Civic Center needs perhaps $17 million in repairs and upgrades, which a revived discussion among aldermen that had been buried for a decade of building a new city hall.
The coronavirus pandemic may provide a new argument in favor of finding a new location, but it may also make it even more difficult than before to finance such a project.