After two years of searching for a new location because of the condition of and proposed sale of the Harley Clarke Mansion, the Evanston Arts Center (EAC) did an about-face Monday night. Tess Lickerman, chair of EAC’s board, announced to the Human Services Committee that after a thorough study of the organization’s options, “We would like to remain [at Harley Clarke].”  EAC asked for 60 days to negotiate a lease with the City, a request a cautious Committee found “reasonable” under the circumstances.

Ms. Lickerman said that studies conducted by EAC determined that the cost of moving would exceed $4 million, while the organization’s realistic fundraising capacity equals about $2.5 million. Few if any spaces identified met the organization’s space needs, she added. “We’ve learned a great deal,” she said. None of the spaces the EAC considered “are better suited than where we are.” Now that the proposed sale of the building to Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation is off the table, the urgency to move has been lifted.

The City has subsidized the EAC since the 1950s, charging just $1 per year in rent. Recently, the Human Services Committee received a City report finding the structure needed about $170,000 in immediate, life-safety-related repairs and upgrades. It is unclear whether with these safety issues, the building should be occupied at this time due to safety issues.

“We’re willing to enter into a contract that shifts [maintenance] costs to us,” said Ms. Lickerman. The current lease, which expires in 2016, appears to shift most of the interior building maintenance costs to EAC. The exterior of the building is the City’s responsibility. Both the interior and exterior have been largely neglected for years. if not decades.

A parade of current and former EAC students and teachers, as well as arts advocates, addressed the Committee urging the City to allow the organization to remain at Harley Clarke. Calling classes there “transformative,” citing the City’s passion for the arts and touting the Center’s impact on both youth and older residents, speakers united in EAC’s praise. Emblematic was James McHolland, whose son is a middle school principal in District 65, who praised EAC saying of his painting teacher, “He has been transforming of my life.” Mr. McHolland said he took his first class when he was in his seventies.

The Committee greeted EAC’s proposal with a bit more caution than enthusiasm. Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said the request for 60 days to study lease terms was “a fair request, well within the realm of reasonable.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, whose 1st ward includes the Noyes Center, said, “I’m a little concerned about the rent.” Noyes tenants pay market rent, she said, and EAC should as well.

Perhaps in response to the monochromatic nature of the EAC student speakers, all of whom were white, Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said the request was “fair, but I do have a few concerns.” He urged EAC to work to “attract a greater diversity of students,” something the current location, on the north side right on the lake, makes more challenging.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she found the request reasonable as well. She added that EAC can serve a more diverse group by “bring[ing] education to the community. It doesn’t all have to be at Harley Clarke.”

In the end, the Committee voted unanimously to send the matter to the City Manager’s office with instructions to negotiate a new lease for Harley Clarke with EAC. Acting Parks and Recreation Director Joe McRae said the City will report back to the Committee at the November meeting. It will be a tough task given the amount of work that needs to be done on the building and the sensitivity with which the public views the Harley Clarke Mansion.