By Bob Uphues
Riverside voters could be faced with a referendum regarding improving or building new public facilities, such as a new public safety building, municipal building or major renovations to existing facilities as early as April 2019.
Village President Ben Sells said Monday that such a referendum, which would appear on the same ballot as trustee candidates for office, would be possible after an architectural firm hired to assess and recommend options finishes up its work later this spring.
"Our goal is to do the planning throughout the summer," said Sells.
Sells' remarks came in the wake of a presentation last week by William Architects, which was hired last November to conduct a study of the village's public facilities, including the village hall offices, police and fire departments, the former public works maintenance garage and Youth Center, the water tower, the Scout Cabin and the new public works facility.
The presentation by Mark Bushhouse, managing partner of Williams Architects, at the May 2 meeting of the village board was in some ways quite predictable. Many of the village's public facilities are obsolete and underutilized or are not up to modern standards – from the lack of private bathrooms for village hall staff to the lack of gender-specific sleeping quarters for overnight paramedics to the dungeon-like conditions of the police department.
Sells, however, said he was surprised by one broad, overarching concern. Safety.
"I was surprised at how our current facilities lack safety measures," said Sells. "Think about how it is when you walk into a school now, or for that matter any public building. We don't have those measures in place."
In his May 2 presentation to the village board, Bushhouse called out a lack of safety measures for the police department at 31 Riverside Road. The facility lacks a secure place to transfer prisoners from squad cars to the booking room and lacks secure transfer points from the holding area to lockups.
Among some of the problems with the police department, according to a more than 200-page existing conditions survey submitted by Williams Architects, there isn't proper separation between sensitive/secure staff areas, public areas and prisoners. There is no separation between male and female prisoners or a separate juvenile lockup.
The report notes that the evidence room isn't compliant with modern standards and that the evidence room and prisoner areas are in close proximity. In addition, it notes that the lower level offices have no windows, lack adequate storage capacity and that staff use portable heaters to stay warm in winter.
The main fire station, the report states, is fast becoming too small to accommodate modern fire engines – which now just barely fit in the two bays – that the upstairs quarters functions as a dayroom/kitchen/sleeping quarters and has just one bathroom. Only the ground-floor offices are air-conditioned.
Fire Station 2, north of the tracks, is small and its location next to the railroad tracks is both disruptive and dangerous.
The report also noted multiple building code violations at both the Youth Center and old public works garage, particularly with respect to ADA accessibility. The building is in poor condition, according to the report, which notes that the village stopped spending large sums to upgrade the building a few years ago with its future in doubt.
The next step in the process is for Williams Architects to submit a future-needs assessment to the village board in order for officials and the public to begin discussing whether to renovate what exists or build new – and where.
Williams Architects should have that report ready for officials either later this month or in June, said Sells.
Once rejected as unrealistic due to its location in a flood plain, the former location of the forest preserve district caretaker's house, on Parkview Road near the intersection of First and Forest avenues, is getting another look by the village's engineering firm, Sells said.
"We're going to revisit it to see if it's even feasible," said Sells, who said the location otherwise makes good sense for a public safety facility. "That'd be the optimal location."
The village might also opt to demolish the obsolete facilities next to the township hall and build a new public safely or combined municipal building there. If those facilities were located elsewhere that area could be turned into a public park or a facility that combines public and private resources – like a conference center or boutique hotel.
"The question for residents is, 'What do you want there?'" Sells said.
The time for getting answers to that question is expected to play out this summer after Williams Architects delivers the future-needs assessment. Of course, any such renovation or construction of public facilities will come with a cost, which will be subject to a public vote.
"We all know this is necessary, but in this political environment, is it realistic to think that any kind of referendum is possible?" said Sells. "We're all residents, too. We're all sensitive to the tax burden we already have.
"If people aren't willing to support anything, then nothing will happen."