Members of the Evanston City Council’s Civic Center Committee voted 4-2 tonight in favor of replacing the building’s roof.

The vote came after city staff presented a report outlining roughly $10 million in potential repairs to the building — including about $2 million for the roof.

But there seemed to be little interest among the aldermen in going beyond the roof work to eliminate asbestos hazards, improve the ventilating system, improve fire safety by enclosing stairwells or making other improvements the staff suggested.

The full nine-member City Council would need to ratify the committee’s vote to actually authorize the work.

What do do with the Civic Center has been an ongoing debate among aldermen for years.

After years of planning to sell the building and move city offices to a new site, concerns about strain on the overall city budget and a slowing real estate market persuaded most aldermen more recently to look closely at staying in the nearly century-old building that began its life as a Catholic girls’ school.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Predictions
    Using my amazing psychic powers, I am making the following predictions:

    1. Cost of repairing the roof will be well in excess of 2 million.
    2. There will be a need for additional costly repairs on the building.

    3. After my first two prophecies above are realized, the local activists who support the current building will insist that the repairs could have been done for much less, if not for the stupidity of the aldermen. ( Financial Darwin Awards will be given out.)

    1. Civic Center and psychic observations
      The initial estimates for the roof are at the $2 megabuck level. That they have reached this level is due to a variety of factors.

      First, the roofing contractor, now bankrupt, not only did an inferior job, but did an incorrect job that created latent defects that are not repairable — the roof needs replacement to correct those errors.

      Add to that the Deferred Maintenance Syndrome, which caused almost a decade of procrastination, allowing water leakage into the building and compounding the problem by damaging the interior.

      Some, but not all, members of the Council have had an epiphany. Given the City’s financial problems, it is not likely that they will move to a new facility in the near term. They are having problems coming up with money to do the repair, much less the $145 million (and growing) pension problem. Also there is the slight problem of the sagging real estate market impacting potential sale of the site. Oh, also where could they put the new Civic Center? And the $50 to $70 megabucks for a new building.

      Nevertheless, Moran voted against repair, and kept insisting that there is a “standing resolution” that they would leave the building. One would gather that money is not a scarce resource for him.

      BTW St. Nicholas Church recently replaced their old slate roof with a new slate roof, steeple and all, for about $1 megabuck.

  2. Synergy
    Replacing the Civic Center’s roof is a fairly expensive and shortsighted Band-Aid to the larger problem of the Civic Center over time becoming gradually more unuseable.
    It seems that Evanston has two related building issues, and I haven’t read much about attempts by the city to explore the synergy between them.
    First, the Civic Center is in need of major roof repairs, HVAC improvement, asbestos removal and fire safety improvements, at the very least. Evidently the issues in this building are sufficient that the city would like to abandon the building altogether for a new location, but is prevented by cost in doing so.
    And second, there seems to be pressure in the local real estate market for high rise development in the city.
    Could the city grant a permit to build a high rise mixed-use building, either on the large City Center site or, better, downtown, and require the developer, as a term of the permit, to rent to the city four or five floors in perpetuity as the new Civic Center for say, $1/year? It would seem to me to solve a number of problems all at once.
    High rise development isn’t necessarily a bad thing, despite all the lawn signs and lapel pins I’ve seen around the area this year. In terms of urban planning, higher density in some areas leads to more energy efficiency and more pedestrian-friendly spaces in a city than does suburban low-rise sprawl, which leads to automobile reliance and large swaths of parking lot asphalt. And I think Evanston is, like it or not, much more of a real city–an urban space– than say, semi-rural Lake Bluff or the highway interchange/ shopping mall that is Schaumburg. If you can take the elevator down from your upper-storey apartment or condo to your job at the Civic Center or in a shop or office on the lower floors, you can leave your car in the sub-basement parking lot, saving commute time, gasoline and reducing the carbon footprint of your commute to practically nil. I think mixed-use is key: a stand-alone apartment, condo or office building is private and off-limits to the majority of citizens, creating a “hole” in the urban fabric, while a mixed use building containing restaurants, government offices, shops, commercial offices, a hotel (?) as well as apartments and condos– becomes integral to the vibrant daily life of Evanston. Think of Water Tower Place executed more successfully and in a less elitist or restrictive fashion.
    The Civic Center building seems to be a wonderful bit of old Evanston architecture and history–I really love the photograph I’ve seen of Victrorian-era residents picnicking on the Civic Center front lawn–and it would be a shame to lose it entirely, though the safety issues of in-place asbestos and lack of safe fire egress are fairly alarming; human life and safety trumps architectural significance in all cases, I think. And the previously proposed site of a high rise on Church Street north of Fountain Square would destroy really wonderful old Evanston buildings. The wonderfully Victorian interior of 600 Church Street, with its row of glass doors fronting a wide variety of mostly health care practices, reminds me of the interior of another beautiful building in Chicago, the Fine Arts Building. The challenge and tension is to keep what makes Evanston truly Evanston and redevelop what might be less site-specific. If we bulldoze what remains of our past, we risk the danger of creating a a soulless mini-Dallas out of our wonderful city. Surely there are parcels in the downtown area where less-significant buildings could be replaced with higher rise development; the 1500 & 1600 blocks of Davis, close to public transportation, or the area south of the Rotary Building come immediately to mind, as does the east side of 1700 Sherman, across from the Varsity Theatre (which some of us wish would be renovated and reopened as a movie house or performing arts stage, adding to our downtown nightlife).
    Air rights straddling the Metra or L tracks would be good areas for development; not requiring the removal of any other buildings–buildings in Chicago to look at would be the Prudential Building (as a successful use of railway air rights), as well as the transportation/building interfaces at the Merchandise Mart, Rush University or the Helmut Jahn residence halls on the IIT campus, each connected to public transit and the urban environment in a vibrant, energized way.
    Another area to consider for high rise development and as a new location for the Civic Center: the southeast edge of the city along Howard Street and immediately north of Howard. That area seems somewhat blighted and could use an influx of capital and jobs; there is already good public transportation and a connection could be made with the urban renewal going on there already, on both sides of the border.
    Just some food for thought.

    1. Edits/Corrections to “Synergy”
      “either on the large City Center site” should read “either on the large Civic Center site”

      “1500 & 1600 blocks of Davis” should read “1500 & 1600 blocks of Maple”

      There’s always something that just comes out wrong…

    2. Civic Center (cont)

      Aside from the money problem, the poor initial re-roofing and the deferred maintenance (a costly error but this is not the only city facility that suffers from this), there are some other issues. If there was a downtown site in a high rise with a portion dedicated to the Civic Center there are some other problems.

      Parking – One of the items discussed at the CC meeting was the need for additional parking on the present site. Where will there be parking downtown? The garages? What about revenue lost if employees get a discount or free parking? Impact on local businesses because of parking and traffic.

      Environmental – If the current building is sold to a developer, the site value will depend on tearing down the structure and building to a higher density. Evanston claims to be a “green” city. To demolish the current structure will create a loss of all the energy used to build it, along with energy consumed in building the new one. Ecologically that will be a huge energy loss that will never be recovered even with a LEEDs building.

      Neighborhood — I assume I will be accused of being NIMBY, but what about the neighbors? Higher density on that parcel will change the character of that neighborhood. Do the neighbors have a voice or should they just leave or tough it?

      1. Relocating the Civic Center
        Thank you for taking the time to read my little rant. You bring up some good points.

        Parking–no developer should be able to build downtown without the building permit addressing adequate on-site parking. IMHO, several levels of underground sub-basement parking would be ideal in new downtown structures, though above-ground attached parking, as at Sherman Plaza could also work–it just eats up more useable area of the land parcel, which could be put to better use. I’m afraid I don’t know about revenue lost by users of a particular building–presumably in a building like Sherman Plaza, tenants get monthly parking with some discount while hourly parkers pay a higher cost. I’m sure there is some way to make the parking pay for itself, or even become a profit center for a building by setting fees high enough. As to local businesses being adversely impacted by increased downtown population density, I should think the opposite would be true. A dry cleaners or restaurant within a multi-use multi-storey building has a built-in client base, as well as being able to attract people from outside. I have a convenience food store on the ground floor of my apartment building right now; if that convenience store was as far away as a Jewel or Dominick’s, I would never set foot inside the convenience store, but they are inside my building, so I use them every day. If I had business in a Civic Center located within a downtown building, I very well might stop and buy a newspaper, cup of coffee, or a pair of shoes as I left the premises.

        Environmental–I’m a bit puzzled by this. You’re quite correct: to never tear down a building, to never build a new one, to never drive a car, stay warm with a furnace or keep cool with an air conditioner would be very “green”, but I think unfeasible in 21st Century America. I think the best we can do is to make conscious decisions to minimize–not completely eliminate–our impact on this earth. If the Civic Center building could be fixed up with small repairs and be useful for another 50 or 60 years, I would think spending a million or two on a new roof would be a good idea. Frankly, hearing that the stairways are not enclosed–allowing a fire to race up the stairwell and into each floor–scares the bejeebers out of me for the safety of our city employees, as does the asbestos hazard.

        NIMBY–I agree with you wholeheartedly that using the Civic Center parcel for high rise construction would be the least favorable option available. If the city were to get virtually donated space in new downtown construction, it’s possible that turning that land into a park or museum would be economically feasible. Failing that, if the housing market is strong enough, housing similar to that which already surrounds the Civic Center seems like a good replacement.

        1. Civic Center Comments

          One of the standard arguments from developers about underground parking (besides its cost) is that because of proximity to Lake Michigan the water table makes it difficult to go below one or two levels. Enclosed above ground parking within the building then gets very expensive because it dilutes salable units.

          As for using existing garages, it minimizes parking for customers in the downtown.

          The energy issue is a conundrum. New is exciting and needs change so there is an excuse for new. But at the same time rehabbing and reuse of existing buildings is ecologically sound — and makes sense if you are hard up for money. The safety issues have been around for quite awhile and some design ingenuity can solve that problem. How green do we want to be? We proclaim ourselves a green city, we have a Director of Sustainability, but do we practice what we preach? The Evanston Roundtable recently had an interesting article by Ms. Galland on the Civic Center and environmental energy considerations.

          As for donated space, no developer would give it away without consideration. If so, why do we bother with zoning and planning?

  3. Best vote by the City Council in 5 years
    How long has the scaffolding been up around the Civic Center to protect the public from falling roof tiles? I think it must have been 5 years. Finally! The City Council has stopped acting like slum property owners and has decided to fix the roof of our most prominent City building. What an embarrassment this has been! I am glad that they have decided to do something about it, but they should all be ashamed of themselves for letting it go for so long.

    1. Best vote
      The City is slowly beginning to realize that its Deferred Maintenance Syndrome is not working. The Civic Center is just the tip of the iceberg. The 4 to 2 vote shows that some of the Council are beginning to realize that there is not enough money to build a monument to their financial ineptitude. Not all have had that epiphany. It was somewhat hilarious to see Ald. Moran grasping for some straw to not replace the roof. Witness his disappointment, when he asked Gaynor about mold levels in the building, and was told they were the same as in the park outside.

      Perhaps it is slowly sinking in that the City is in a financial mess…

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