Fate of building on Church Street still unknown

Dana Molina

One year ago Wednesday, the city of Evanston reclaimed the building at 1817 Church St.

The decision came after nearly six years of give-and-take between a local activist group, which wanted the space to build an African-American center, and the city, which expected more progress on the project.

Now, with an unstable economy and no solid plans for the property, the future of the center and the building that might host it is still in flux.

“Getting financing for anything is very difficult right now,” said Sarah Flax, administrator of the Community Development Block Grant. “(The economy is) something that complicates the process. An awful lot of projects are not moving forward right now.”

But this property has had more than its share of uncertainty.

In 2001, the Evanston Westside Citizens District Council paid the city $1 for the building with plans to institute the African-American center. The District Council hoped the center would represent African-Americans in Evanston and serve as a resource for children’s workshops and parent and community member meetings.

The District Council agreed to give the city the right to reclaim the property if it didn’t complete the project in nine months. Nine months later, Community Development Block Grant worked with the District Council to get deadline extensions until last year, when the city took back the land because the museum still wasn’t finished.

“Since the group didn’t get the work done in that amount of time – well beyond that amount of time – the city summed up,” Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said.

Judith Treadway, secretary of Evanston’s National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People branch and former Development Block Grant member, was one of the activists in favor of the African-American Center. It was unfair that the city “snatched” the building away, she said.

“It was strategic,” she said. “They had completed the majority of the repairs. They had applied for the (occupancy) permit, and the next week they got a notice that the city was taking the building back.”

But the city wondered if the group would be able to maintain the building, Jean-Baptiste said.

“The city looked at the capacity of the group in terms of the revenue to sustain a museum,” he said. “One, the progress was not satisfactory, and two, the ability to sustain a museum was questionable.”

As the city continues to try to complete the project, Treadway said she has no intentions of getting involved.

“It’s the city’s property,” Treadway said. “They can do whatever they want to do with it.”

Evanston officials still hope to finish the project, and some groups have shown interest in finalizing it, Jean-Baptiste said.

“The city needed to enlarge the call to more Evanstonians to try to come together to try and make this a reality,” he said. “The proposal the initial group set forth, the city thought it was a good idea.”

The Community Development Block Grant has met with ethnic and cultural groups to see what makes them successful.

Whenever the project does move forward, Treadway hopes the city will keep the District Council’s original concept.

“If the concept of the facility is not in line with what they had planned, there will be a lot more hard feelings. If they change the concept completely, then there will really be some hard feelings,” she said.

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