Evanston officials say it was in the city’s best interest to use city workers Saturday to finish a patio job for a restaurant on Howard Street, defending themselves against an activist’s charge it was an abuse of city resources.
Junad Rizki notified the local press after driving by the Peckish Pig restaurant at 623 Howard St., late Saturday morning and seeing, by his count, at least nine city vehicles and an equal number of employees around the site, finishing work on a new patio.
The patio sits behind the restaurant. Peckish Pig, a new restaurant and brewpub, which opened earlier this year, leases the property from the city in a lease-to-own arrangement.
The city bought the previously dilapidated property in October 2011 for $475,000 and provided a $200,000 loan to go towards renovating the space. Under the lease-to-own agreement, the city is to collect escalating market-rate rent over the remaining five-year lease agreement, at which point the owners will be permitted to purchase the building from the city for the amount spent purchasing and rehabbing it.
Rizki, a frequent critic of city spending practices at City Council meetings, raised concerns about the involvement of time and city resources expended for a private business.
“The council was not notified this work was done so the public had no knowledge of it,” he said.
He said the work appeared to exceed the $20,000 limit on work that can be done without council approval.
City officials and Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose 8th Ward the restaurant is located, defended the project, seeing a chance to help a business in a district that has been a focus of city economic development efforts.
Debbie Evans, one of Peckish Pig’s owners, said the restaurant approached the city for help, getting a late start on finding a contractor for the patio with all the other steps that went into opening the establishment in March.
She said about five companies turned down their offer, “they all said they were previously booked.” The few companies that showed interest, meanwhile, “were dreadfully priced.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said he directed staff to finish work on the project, feeling it was in the best interest of the city to aid the restaurant, whose early success has been a key to Howard’s resurgence.
The building’s status as property of the city also figured in the decision, officials said. While a private business operates out of he building, said Johanna Nyden, the city’s economic development division manager, “the city still retains ownership, and we needed to make sure the work was done professionally and in workman-like manner.”
In this case, if the bricks were not laid in correct manner, said Nyden, in an e-mail, “we would have serious damage to the structure if the patio didn’t slope correctly and moisture were not directed away from the building.”
Nyden said that public works staff worked outside of normal hours (one or two evenings and then two or three Saturdays) since mid-July to complete the project.
“We are currently completing all the costs for the project, which was initially estimated to be $16,000,” she said. The bricks, which the city salvaged from a downtown sidewalk project, are part of the estimate, she said.
Rizki, a licensed architect, said the work should have been part of a public process and questioned the need to involve city employees and resources.
He said officials should have brought the issue to the full council, determined a price for the work and then bid it out.
“They pretended this is an emergency, but it’s just an excuse to use city employees to do the work,” he said. “Really this is all about the taxpayers giving something to somebody that wasn’t in the original lease. Why didn’t they go to the council for this?”
Rainey said she pushed for the city to take over the job and complete it, with the possibility of the patio not getting done until October.
She said that would “kill any value “of having the patio this year. The project was totally transparent, she said. She advertised it on her website, as another step forward in the street’s revitalization.
“The trucks pulled up, the workers had on city uniforms. Nobody was trying to hide anything,” she said. “If we can get something done so these people can be successful in their patio, let’s do it.”
Peckish Pig will reimburse the city every cent, she said.