‘Grim, sobering’: Evanston City Council OKs elevator repairs, talks failing infrastructure


Daily file photo by Mika Ellison

The Police and Fire Headquarters decrepit elevator led to a broader discussion about failing infrastructure at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Cole Reynolds, Print Managing Editor

City Council unanimously voted to put more than $500,000 toward emergency repairs for the elevator at Police and Fire Headquarters Monday night. But the elderly elevator provided a peephole into a larger conversation about the city’s aging infrastructure, a situation Ald. Devon Reid (8th) described as “grim” and “sobering.”

“We really need to nail this down in the next year or so — what we’re going to do with this building, what we’re going to do with the other buildings,” Reid said.

The elevator, installed in 1985, was set to undergo a modernization project after staff reported that it was struggling to rise last year. An inspection revealed that it had lost large amounts of hydraulic fluid, and City Council approved the modernization project on Oct. 10. 

After work commenced in late April, however, contractors alerted city staff that problems with the elevator ran deeper than initially thought. A reevaluation of the shaft in May found that three of the walls in the shaft were unstable, displaying “significant cracking” and displaced cinder blocks. The report recommended a full reconstruction of the elevator. 

The decrepit elevator is just one of the challenges facing the PFHQ. Housing approximately 220 active staff, the building is just 50-60% of the size needed to adequately support the staff and services, according to a memo sent to City Council by city engineer Lara Biggs. 

Additionally, the memo notes that the building is noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, and its current layout and size prevent the city from upgrading it into compliance. 

Biggs told City Council that discussions about PFHQ would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge the larger state of city infrastructure. The city owns about 50 buildings and six of them have a “legacy of underinvestment,” leading to multiple system failures in the buildings, according to Biggs’ memo. 

City Council spoke in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars when discussing the cost of addressing those building failures. Some of Biggs’ preliminary estimates almost scratched $300 million. Some staff and councilmembers at the meeting hinted at a full rebuild of certain municipal buildings.

“The cost is going to be brutal no matter what,” Mayor Daniel Biss said.

The elevator repair funds made that particularly clear on Monday night, with their cost ballooning from an original $177,000 assessment to ultimately upwards of $1 million for the full replacement, according to Biggs. The city only budgets about $600,000 per year for emergency repairs to infrastructure, Biggs added, and just $280,000 is typically left at this time of year.

Multiple councilmembers said the city should be investing more money into infrastructure on a yearly basis to avoid the bigger bills, like the ones discussed Monday night, in the future.

“We can’t get distracted by some of the bells and whistles,” Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said. “It’s the council’s responsibility to make sure that we are doing what it takes to maybe spend a little bit of more money on an annual basis to avoid much bigger future expenses.”

A systemic lack of communication was also responsible for the state of city infrastructure, some of the councilmembers said. Reid asked City Manager Luke Stowe to ensure that each city department comes to budget discussions and fights for the amount of money it truly needs.

And at some points in the meeting, some councilmembers turned their attention inward, reflecting on requests the council refused to grant. 

Facilities & Fleet Manager Sean Cioleksaid the department lacks enough staffing to even create a proper budget proposal for City Council. Nieuwsma said City Council needs to be more diligent in approving staffing requests from departments to avoid shortages like the one at facilities.

“I’ll beat the horse a little bit more about not repeating our past mistakes and really doing what it takes to invest in the maintenance and upkeep of these facilities,” Nieuwsma said. “That’s on staff to let Council know what’s needed. And it’s also on Council to approve that request.”

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Twitter: @charcole27

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