Civic Center Relocation Feasibility Project sparks discourse among Evanston residents


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

City Council will discuss relocating the current Civic Center building to a different facility downtown in the coming months.

Lily Carey, Reporter

After years of discussion, Evanston is pursuing a potential relocation of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, the current hub of city government activity — but resident reactions have been mixed.

Although some residents raise concerns about the potential price of the project, others have long said the Civic Center, which is currently located in the historic Marywood Academy building on Ridge Street, is not easily accessible by public transportation and disability standards. City officials also say a move could help grow the city’s green infrastructure network. With these concerns in mind, City Council voted at its Oct. 25 meeting to pursue a $367,000 relocation feasibility project for the facility.

City Engineer Lara Biggs said renovations for the current Civic Center would include major facilities upgrades and could cost anywhere from $20 to $24 million, according to a 2018 assessment of construction project costs.

Moving the facility out of its current building, Biggs said, may be a more financially responsible decision.

“There’s a lot of problems with the Civic Center that don’t actually have to do with its current state,” Biggs said.

As the city begins hiring local firms to assess areas downtown where Civic Center services could move, some residents agree a more central location would help solve the building’s current problems with accessibility, especially coupled with its current state of disrepair.

Resident Jay Robinson said the building’s disorganized structure has negatively impacted his experience with city government.

“The offices are kind of small and broken up, and it doesn’t seem terribly accessible for people with disabilities,” he said.

Relocating the Civic Center downtown could also provide easier access for residents because of its proximity to small businesses, public transit, and other city government facilities, resident Michael Miro said.

However, not all residents think the project is necessary or cost-effective. At the Oct. 25 meeting, over a dozen people expressed concerns about costs relating to the center’s relocation as it was proposed for inclusion in the 2022 city budget. The approval deadline for the budget is Dec. 31.

Biggs said plans for relocation have been in the works as early as 1997. Then, in 2007, about 83% of voters opposed relocating the Civic Center in a public referendum, after which the plan was largely shelved.

Resident John Kennedy remembered hearing about the project when it was proposed over a decade ago. There wasn’t proper infrastructure downtown to accommodate Civic Center operations back then, Kennedy said, and this hasn’t changed.

“The city spent around a quarter million dollars … looking at the same concepts,” Kennedy said. “There wasn’t any (solution) downtown.”

Now that the issue is back on the budget, residents who remember the 2007 referendum are still hesitant to support it.

Evanston resident Bruce Enenbach said the issue is no more relevant now than it was originally.

“Nothing of significance has occurred in the interim to warrant another shot at this rather silly idea,” Enenbach said.

Despite past opposition to relocation, Biggs said the feasibility project is more applicable and necessary now than during previous discussions, as it now includes the potential for growing the city’s green infrastructure network. As a part of its Climate Action and Resilience Plan, Evanston will pursue a goal of reaching carbon neutrality in all city government buildings by 2035.

Currently, Biggs said the Civic Center uses natural gas. Switching over to a cleaner energy system would accrue an additional cost beyond the projected $20-24 million for rehabilitating the existing building. By incorporating green energy into a new building, relocation may be a simpler, more sustainable alternative to pouring city funds into the older, less efficient structure, she said.

Now that the city is officially pursuing the relocation feasibility project, a potential move would happen within the next 3 to 5 years, according to Biggs.

Residents have said the city still needs to discuss many details in the relocation process. Despite outcry, Miro emphasized a new building would need to reflect Evanston’s visions for the future above all.

“Evanston wants to be known as a leader … on environmental issues,” he said. “If you were going to build a new building, you would want to build a building that reflected that commitment and those values.”

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Twitter: @lilylcarey

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