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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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City Council rejects proposal to consider shorter leases for downtown civic center, sustain 15-year lease

Daily file photo by Mika Ellison
The sole resolution discussed at the special meeting would direct city staff to explore leases shorter than 15 years, but City Council rejected the resolution.

City Council voted 5-3 at a special meeting Thursday to sustain the city’s plan to lease downtown office space for city government operations for 15 years, rejecting a superseding resolution that would direct city staff to explore shorter leases. 

At its Jan. 22 meeting, City Council voted 6-3 to authorize City Manager Luke Stowe to sign a proposed 15-year lease — with an option to opt out after seven years — at 909 Davis St. for about $2.4 million per year. The downtown space will house city offices, which could move out of their current home at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center as early as June. 

But, near the end of the Feb. 12 council meeting, Ald. Bobby Burns (5th), who had initially voted for the 15-year lease, said he was under the impression that he could work with city staff to “request what a 10-year lease would look like.” 

Burns and Alds. Clare Kelly (1st), Thomas Suffredin (6th) and Devon Reid (8th), who voted against the 15-year lease, co-sponsored a resolution that would repeal the council’s Jan. 22 decision. The new resolution directs Stowe to negotiate 3-, 5-, 7- and 10-year leases and report the findings back to the council. 

The city held a special council meeting Thursday to consider the resolution, ahead of the body’s scheduled meeting next Monday.

At the start of discussion, Mayor Daniel Biss said the current Civic Center, which the city purchased in 1975, is “not a usable building,” which prompted City Council to temporarily move city operations out of the building. 

“We’re sitting on a ticking time bomb and there’s no guarantee it works,” Biss said. “There is a very real possibility that any of the serious problems relative to safety, relative to security really create an issue that is untenable.”

According to the city’s Capital Planning Bureau Chief Lara Biggs, both the HVAC and the electrical systems in the Civic Center are failing. The city has spent more than $1.7 million on emergency repairs since 2018. 

If the city were to renovate the Civic Center, it would require the building to comply with building codes the city adopted after the building’s construction –– including those for building structure and fire safety, Biggs said. The city also considered making the Civic Center compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan. 

Because of the scale of renovation and the nature of city operation, Biggs said it would take the city five to seven years to complete the renovation, and a similar amount of time to construct a new building. 

While looking for alternative options, Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak said city staff kept in mind this timeline along with the city’s specific needs, including the need for at least 50,000 square feet of space, a ground floor space for service delivery and contiguous floors. After a “complete market scan,” Zalmezak said the space at 909 Davis St. came back as the city’s best option.

But, given the lease’s length and the steep rental price of the new space, Kelly said the city needs to revisit its decision from January and consider shorter leases.

“We need to stop right now,” she said. “Minimally we need to have our due diligence, not abrogate our fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers and have these numbers brought back to us.”

Reid added that the resolution discussed Thursday would give City Council additional, “critical” information for leases with shorter terms. 

Pushing back, Zalmezak said the resolution could “literally kill the deal.”

“We’ve negotiated in good faith … We know what’s out there. There’s no additional market information that we’re going to learn,” Zalmezak said.

The resolution failed on a 5-3 vote, with only Kelly, Suffredin and Reid voting in favor. 

During the discussion, Biss and Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) also raised concerns about the city’s credibility if it were to walk back its Jan. 22 vote.

In response, Reid and Suffredin said the city should have a solid plan for the long-term future of the Civic Center before moving out temporarily in order to be responsible to Evanston residents. 

“Because the lease has not been signed, we have not entered into an official agreement with the property owner,” Reid said. “If someone is worried about the city’s credibility, I think you also should be concerned about our credibility with our residents.”

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Twitter: @caseeey_he

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