Some members of the City’s Human Services Committee said at the Sept. 16 meeting that they did not wish to approve funds to bring the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, into compliance with City codes. But there was no apparent consensus on the immediate or short-term future of the mansion or its tenant, the Evanston Art Center.
A report from City staff recommended that the City “mitigate life-safety hazards” at the mansion, which has housed the Evanston Art Center for more than 40 years. These repairs include upgrading the electrical distribution and the fire-alarm system and improving ventilation and plumbing, at a cost of about $170,000.
The report also identified several needed repairs that did not rise to the level of code violations.
The memo, prepared by Public Works Director Suzette Robinson, Community Development Director Mark Muenzer, Fire Chief Greg Klaiber, Engineering Division Manager Homayoon Pirooz, and Manager of Buildings and Inspection Services Jeff Murphy, also recommended that an additional $100,000 be spent on a more comprehensive site evaluation and a study of other potential uses of the mansion and property.
Consideration of the $270,000 total, for a building whose future use is uncertain, did not come to a vote, but at least three aldermen indicated that they would not support the recommendation.
Aldermen also discussed the immediate future of the building and of the Evanston Art Center, whose lease, though terminable with 240 days’ notice, does not expire until 2021. EAC staff has said they are looking to relocate within Evanston and have been discussing their plans and needs with City officials.
Under the lease, the Art Center is responsible for annual repairs and maintenance, but it does not appear that the Art Center kept up with those.
Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, who chairs the Human Services Committee, said she was “concerned about the liability of the City if we allow them to stay.”
“It’s our property,” responded City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.
“My concern with looking at this $270,000 [is] it’s a short-term fix for a much bigger project,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, adding that he would not support the request for funds.
In response to a question from Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus, Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City has received no complaints about ADA accessibility at the Art Center.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she “likes the idea of scheduling a tour, since we have already been collecting input [from residents about the future of the mansion].”
Mr. Bobkiewicz said that the City had not been soliciting input from residents.
“Let’s open that up,” said Ald. Grover, “from ‘Take the house down’ to ‘Make it better’ and everything in between.”
“First and foremost,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz, “we need to get a better sense of where the Art Center is. If there’s not the inclination to fund improvements … I’m very concerned about the current status of the building. My recommendation to the committee would be ‘Let’s get a handle on that first.’… Before we do tours or other community meetings, it would be my recommendation that we come to some understanding with the Art Center, because that is so far above any other issue.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City would solicit input from residents through the City’s website, using the community engagement program MindMixer. He said he would return to the next Human Services Committee meeting, now scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 7, with additional information “if not with a complete plan.” He added he would like to keep the future use of the mansion “on as fast a track as possible so we at least know where we’re at with the Evanston Art Center and the condition of the building.” He said he recommended holding off on other considerations about the building “until we have a plan that’s a here-and-now plan.”
Ald. Burrus brought up the possibility of demolishing the building, and Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, requested that the City Manager provide information about the cost – “in terms of dollars and physically securing the building from outsiders, whether it’s critters or other outsiders.” He added, “Anything between starting to rehab it now and tearing it down means putting it in some sort of limbo.”