City struggles to fix aging civic center under tight budget

Evan Hessel

Water leaks through holes in the roof of the Evanston Civic Center and the building’s walls are crumbling on the fourth floor. On any given day, 10 to 20 heat pumps do not work, and the city has one employee whose only responsibility is to fix them.

An architectural report submitted to the city in 1998 highlighted these and other structural problems in Evanston’s main governmental building and recommended $15 million to $20 million in renovations.

Though the city has made some improvements since the report, many of the structural problems listed in 1998 still exist, said Max Rubin, director of facilities management for Evanston.

Included in this year’s Capital Improvement Project are plans to replace the leaky, shingled roof with a standing steel seam roof, which will cost the city an estimated $800,000, Rubin said.

The plan also calls for designing a new heating and cooling system for the building after the roof is replaced.

Such improvements are costly but necessary to maintain decent working conditions, Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said.

“We throw different amounts at the building just to get by day to day, ” he said.

But Rubin and aldermen recognize that the city does not have the funding for the full-scale renovation proposed for the building in the 1998 assessment.

“In the short term, we don’t have the resources for those improvements,” Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said.

Among the building’s inadequacies are the leaking roof, outdated heating and cooling system and a substandard fire alarm system. Constrained by a nearly $4 million budget deficit in 2002 and a long list of other capital improvement priorities, the city has been able only to address smaller problems within the civic center.

Bernstein said he remembers an Evanston City Council meeting a few years ago when city staff used buckets to catch water dripping into the council chamber through holes in the roof.

“The thinking is that it’s broken, but not too broken for us to live here,” Bernstein said.

Besides recognizing the physical deterioration of the civic center, Bernstein said the building’s layout is not ideal for governmental operations.

Constructed in two phases in 1909 and 1919, the civic center was originally a school and is too large and spatially divided for a governmental building, Bernstein said. City officials use only a portion of its space and rent many rooms to outside parties, including state Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston.

Alternatives to the full renovations have been proposed, such as constructing a new building or renting space in an existing structure.

In the 1998 assessment report, the architect proposed that the city investigate building a new civic center, claiming that it could cost a little less than renovating the current structure, Bernstein said.

Real estate developers already have shown interest in turning the civic center’s land into condominiums, which could generate a substantial amount of revenue for the city, Bernstein said.

“Developers have been champing at the bit for that property,” Bernstein said.