City Council back on track for residential emergency phones

Elise Foley

Evanston City Council re-approved a plan Dec. 10 to install blue light emergency telephones this spring, after a month-long debate about whether the lights actually deter crime.

The council first approved the plan to install the call boxes on Oct. 22 only to reconsider and approve them again during the December meeting. As part of a joint effort by Northwestern and the city, eight emergency call boxes will be placed on Evanston streets. Council members decided at the meeting to install call boxes in five locations near Chicago Transit Authority stations and at three neighborhood intersections: Sherman Avenue and Elgin Road, Sherman Avenue and Hamlin Street, and Simpson Avenue and Maple Avenue.

The proposal originally included another location at the intersection of Orrington Avenue and Noyes Street. However, this location was eliminated due to complaints by Evanston residents. The area is “purely residential” – meaning it does not have any NU buildings – said Ald. Cheryl Wollin (1st), whose ward borders NU’s western border.

“Some neighbors felt it reflected on the safety of the community,” said Max Rubin, Evanston’s emergency preparedness manager.

Residents voiced these concerns at a Nov. 11 council meeting, where some argued the call boxes would bring down property values and that they had not been proven effective.

Jeanne Lindwall, a Northwestern Neighbors board member, was one of the organizers of the November effort to reconsider the proposal. She still questions the ability of the call boxes to deter crime, she said, because she has heard anecdotes of students being robbed in front of the boxes.

However, Lindwall said she appreciated the compromise to remove the Orrington and Noyes call box from the plan.

“The phone that I was the most concerned about has been moved,” she said. “The neighborhood is pleased that we don’t have the blue light phone in the middle of the historic district.”

Council decided to reconsider the emergency phones in residential areas, but to move forward with plans for call boxes near CTA stations.

The council might have approved the plan too hastily the first time, Wollin said.

“I knew that it was something that (students) felt was very important, so when we saw it on the agenda we were excited that it was finally showing up, and so we approved it,” she said. “We didn’t have all the information that we needed.”

After reconsidering the proposal and eliminating the telephone at Orrington Avenue and Noyes Street, Wollin voted again to approve the emergency phones. “I know some people say they aren’t (effective), but I think they are a deterrent to crime, and certainly make people feel safer,” she said.

The lone dissenter in the 8-1 vote was Ald. Steven Bernstein (7th), who said he questioned the ability of the blue lights to actually make the area safer, instead of just making it feel safer.

“People see them and become complacent, and think it’s okay for a single person to be walking down the street at three in the morning,” he said. “It’s not. I hate that it’s not, but you’ve got to be really careful, because there’s crazies out here. So my main concern is that I think it creates a superficial sense of safety.”

Bernstein also mentioned the “stigma” of having emergency call boxes in residential areas, echoing residents’ concerns about property value.

The installation will cost NU about $83,000, but fees for maintaining the call boxes, which the city is responsible for, will only be about $1,000 per year, Rubin said.

“(NU is) doing all the work, and we’re the ones getting all the benefits,” he said. “I think it benefits the community – students as well as the citizens that live in the area.”

NU Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage said he is glad the city decided to go ahead with the plan.

“We’re very pleased that it’s moved forward,” Cubbage said. “This is an effort from Northwestern and the city to provide greater protection for students, faculty and staff, and also Evanston residents.”

Reach Elise Foley at [email protected]