By Bob Seidenberg
Evanston City Council members gave staff the go-ahead June 12 to move forward with emergency repairs to the elevator that serves the city’s Police/Fire Headquarters, with cost totaling as high as $1.5 million.
Staff’s request also touched off discussion about the future of the building the departments share, located at 909 Lake St./1454 Elmwood Ave. it was built in 1949 and has received major upgrades in the pastt.
Several council members said that a recent tour of the building arranged by staff convinced them it is time to take a new path on the issue.
“I thought the tour of the Police and Fire Headquarters was enlightening – I mean, dramatically eye-opening,” said Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle during discussion. It “underscored the need – the serious need – for not just us to replace the elevator, but to rethink about totally new facilities.”
Mayor Daniel Biss also mentioned the tour as influencing his views.
“I feel like I spent a lot of time in the police station,” he said. “That tour was troubling and surprising. We’ve had a lot of conversation around here, understandable over the last few years about trying to understand our challenges with personnel retention in the police department and one thing I can tell you is that building does not send a message of ‘you’re valued.’
“We need to have a police station that sends the message ‘you’re valued’ to the people who work here,” he said.
Spelling out the problems
In a more than half-hour presentation at the June 12 City Council meeting, staff spoke of the building’s history and described some of the normal operational challenges the Police Department faces because of the inadequate footprint for a modern police operation.
When first built in 1949, the building housed a municipal courthouse as well as police station and included Fire Station No. 1, said Lara Biggs, the city’s capital planning and engineering bureau chief.
The courthouse and fire station would later relocate.
In 1985, an elevator was added to the three-story building.
When the city starting doing maintenance on the elevator – now 38 years later, Biggs said – “we found there were quite a number of challenges with the structural walls that surrounded and enclosed” it, necessitating the repair plan.
Biggs said in her memo that the estimated duration of the elevator shaft repair is seven to nine months, with an estimated cost of $1 million to $1.5 million.
In the presentation, officials identified other shortcomings of the building, including its size. The current building is 58,000 square feet, only two-thirds of the 92,000 square feet recommended for such an operation, they said.
Built originally to accommodate 87 people, the building now must serve 220, Biggs said.
Evanston Police Chief Schenita Stewart and Sue Pontarelli, in charge of facilities for the department, joined Biggs for the presentation, detailing other operational challenges.
“–Lack of space, resulting in a sub-par facility and poor work environment;
“– Failure to meet ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards and inability to be brought into compliance;
“– Failure to meet building codes for health and safety;
“– Failure to provide police staff with adequate space as they continue to adapt and adjust.”
The building also doesn’t meet the needs of policing, which has changed since 1949, including the growth in female staff numbers and increase in safety equipment, Pontarelli said.
Facility can discourage job prospects
Also, Pontarelli noted “the work space inside the building is difficult for personnel to move from one area to another.
“So its deteriorated spaces, inadequate spaces and it truly discourages officers from coming in and working with us at city events,” she told council members.
With the elevator out of service, some areas “of great importance that would be taken out of service, with the evidence tech lab being one, part of the lockup,” as well as a few other areas, she said.
Police Chief Schenita Stewart, who started in her job last October, expressed concern about the understaffed department’s efforts at attracting new police officers.
“Everyone wants to work in a facility that meets the needs of not only the job they do but also the needs of the community,” she pointed out.
She said one officer who recently left the department “notified us that one of the deciding factors that he came down to was the facility difference” between Evanston and Arlington Heights.
Since then, Stewart said, four more officers have left the department. She said officer wellness is also an important factor when officers are choosing where to work.
“Right now, with officers at 12-hour days, there’s a lot of time where they don’t go home,” she said.
They’re held over for emergencies and other reasons, she said, “and there’s not adequate spaces for them, quiet spaces for them to sleep.”
She told council members “we have officers that continually will sleep in their cars rather than sleep in the police department.”
Stewart, who previously served in the East Dundee and Lincolnwood police departments, told council members, “if you look at any other facilities on the North Shore, in Illinois, we’re still in 1949.”
‘We’re letting our facilities fall apart’
In discussion of the Police/Fire Headquarters, council members swung between discussing changes in the city’s maintenance practices and need for commitment behind a new facility.
Along with the Police-Fire Headquarters, officials named other “legacy facility” challenges facing the city, including the Service Center, Morton Civic Center, Noyes Cultural Arts Center and Ecology Center among those buildings in need of repairs, with a combined estimated repair bill ranging from $145 million to $275 million.
“I won’t belabor the point but we have to do better,” said Council Member Krissie Harris (2nd Ward). “We’re letting our facilities fall apart. That’s horrendous. And then we have no choice but to make these repairs that are dire and ADA compliant.”
“I don’t know that criminals need to have a fancy place to be,” she added, “but that’s OK. We still have to upgrade the places. But we have to have maintenance logs on schedule so that we know. When you buy a home you need to start looking at your furnace. We’ve got to do that as a city or we’re just going to keep spending big money.”
Sean Ciolek, the city’s division manager of facilities and fleets, said preventative building maintenance schedules are maintained.
“What we struggle a little bit with sometimes is staffing,” he said, noting the city is responsible for 60 facilities.
Harris stressed she wasn’t blaming the current administration, noting issues go back to the 1990s. Other council members, though, also asked about the city’s maintenance system.
People in custody
Sixth Ward Council Member Thomas Suffredin asked staff to confirm the purpose of the discussion.
“You’re not asking us to fix this building. You’re asking us to plan for the future of Police and Fire Headquarters in an appropriate location in a building that meets the needs of those departments and the residents they serve, correct?” he said, receiving assent from Biggs.
He argued that council members should hold an executive session at their next meeting.
“I think it’s critical, particularly as it relates to the police department, that we remember that the people who are in custody at the police department still enjoy the presumption of innocence,” he added, not elaborating. “And it’s critical that we take this into account as we plan and build this building.”
Council members voted 9-0 to authorize staff to move forward to execute emergency contracts and payments for elevator shaft repairs at the Police/Fire Headquarters.