Harley Clarke Mansion                                                                         RoundTable photo

The State’s largest landowner came to court Evanston on Jan. 15. In a two-hour meeting that appeared to be more “get to know us” than “let’s make a deal,” representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) described several of their activities, partnerships and projects to about 80 residents in the Parasol Room at the Civic Center.

IDNR receives about $2 million in federal funds each year for the Coastal Management Program, said Todd Main, chief of staff for IDNR. The agency would like a centrally located home for its relatively new Coastal Management program, ideally between the northern and southern tips of Illinois’ Lake Michigan shoreline. Evanston is near that mid-point, said Mr. Main, and the lakefront location of the Harley Clarke mansion would be suitable not only for their headquarters but also for hands-on education programs.

Diane Tecic, Coastal Management Program manager at IDNR, said, “We’re very interested in seeing if we can add to Evanston. IDNR feels this is a great opportunity for a partnership. Evanston is a special place.” She said with the “central lakefront location within IDNR’s [coastal management] program boundaries, the excellent opportunity to expand educational and recreational activities and a natural resource agency [partnering with] a widely recognized green city, IDNR’s coastal programming is a great fit with Evanston’s Lakefront Master Plan.”

To many specific questions there were only soft or broad answers. “I want to be clear that we’re still in the dating stage. There is no contract and there are no agreements,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. He added that DNR is interested in leasing rather than in purchasing space for its Coastal Management Program.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the agency has expressed interest in only the mansion and the coach house but added he has had “conversations” about using one or both of the fog houses adjacent to the lighthouse for educational programs.

The beach and the parking area would remain under control of the City, said Mr. Bobkiewicz.

Yet there appeared to be some concrete aspects of the unwritten offer. 

IDNR’s Likely Uses of the Property

Suellen Burns, senior adviser for IDNR’s Millennium Reserve Project near Calumet Harbor, said, “IDNR’s role is funding, technical assistance, program development and other similar roles. Our job is to be a facilitator of [those things].”

Some of the rooms would be for IDNR office staff. A number of Coastal Management Program personnel – perhaps 15 to 20 – would relocate to Evanston. With the Central Street CTA station only four blocks away, Ms. Tecic said, employee parking would not pose many problems. She also said she thought there would not be more than two or three “walk-in” visitors on a daily basis.

Some rooms would be open to the public – such as for regional public meetings – and rooms would be used for education. Ms. Tecic said she would like to see a coastal-education center – a hands-on wet classroom where kids could learn about the interaction of the land and the water, the habitat and the ecosystem.

The proximity of Northwestern University also offers “potential for education and research synergies,” Ms. Tecic said and the mansion itself could become “a demonstration site for environmentally sustainable best practices.”

Improving the habitat of the shoreline would involve removing non-native invasive species and reducing storm water using green infrastructure – for example, permeable pavers, bioswales and rain gardens.

Making recreation more accessible would include “expand[ing] access points and increase[ing] access and [finding ways to] better connect land-based trains and water trails within the coastal community,” said Ms. Tecic. Kayak tours and a kayak trail with free landing points along Lake Michigan could expand that access, she said. IDNR would like to improve and protect the habitat to promote passive recreation – birders and wildlife watchers, for example.

Ms. Tecic said, “The Coastal Management Program for a prominent lakefront site is great – wow! What a concept! What a great fit!”

Possible Repairs to the Mansion

There is money to bring the mansion up to code, said Mr. Main, and “We are not scared of the cost. Whether bringing the building into compliance with ADA and other regulations would be the limit of IDNR’s rehab of the mansion is as yet unclear. He said IDNR would likely have its own engineers assess the building and added, “We want to maintain the integrity of the building.”

The City and the Art Center

The Evanston Art Center’s lease with the City does not expire until 2021; either party can terminate the lease with 280 days’ notice. Mr. Bobkiewicz said for the last two years the Art Center has been public about wishing to relocate but has since indicated it would like to remain in the mansion, its home for the past 40-some years.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said, however, “To move forward, we will have to work with EAC.  They have embraced the idea of relocating and we will continue to work with EAC.” He said there is not sufficient space in the mansion for the Art Center and IDNR. He referred to a “maintenance” clause in the lease with EAC and said, “The City has not made any determination of violations” of the lease.

“My direction from the Council is ‘Go slow,’” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “Council has also directed me to work with the Evanston Art Center. We’ve been on parallel tracks. My sense is we can’t go on with parallel tracks very much longer. We have to … [decide] ‘Will we proceed? Will we continue with the Evanston Art Center? Will we do something else entirely?”’

Next Steps

Ms. Tecic said IDNR would like to have a charette – a public brainstorming forum – to receive input from residents in the near future.

 Ms. Burns said, “We want you, as a community contemplating a partnership with us, to know that we have a pretty strong track record of listening and responding.”

“This is an opportunity for an Evanston/Illinois partnership,” said Mr. Main. “We have internally talked to all our folks, including the Governor’s office, and have been given the green light to proceed,” he added.

Speaking on behalf of noparksale.org, Mary Rosinski said, “There are many details that need to be worked out regarding the lease terms if the City decides to move forward with the IDNR.  We do feel that Harley Clarke would be a good location for a Coastal Management Program. Additionally the IDNR’s plans are consistent with Evanston’s Lakefront Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance and would ensure that the Harley Clarke Mansion and public parkland remains in the public domain.

“We look forward to hearing more details from both the Evanston Art Center and IDNR about their plans for Harley Clarke at the Human Services Committee meeting on Feb 3. As negotiations move forward, we trust that the process will be transparent and result in the Harley Clarke Mansion and surrounding parkland being used for the benefit of all Evanston citizens.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said he plans to bring to the Feb. 3 Human Services Committee information about IDNR’s interest, make some recommendations and ask for further direction.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...