Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Reversing its reversal of just a few weeks ago, the Evanston Art Center on Feb. 3 said it did not find the Harley Clarke mansion – its home for the past 41 years – suitable for its plans for growth. Executive Director Norah Diedrich, however, did ask the members of the Human Services Committee for a longer period of time than the 240 days allowed in its current lease.

A week later, on Feb. 10, City Council found a few more weeks for the Art Center, allowing until the end of January, 2015, for the organization to exit the mansion, rather than the October date that the lease would have mandated. The unanimous voice vote approved invoking the termination clause in the City’s lease with the Art Center but tacked on an additional three months for it to relocate.

Council members also directed City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to begin negotiations with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which has expressed its desire to lease the mansion, and possibly the coach house, for its Coastal Management Program.

Human Services Committee, Feb. 3

Reading on Feb. 3 from a letter composed by the Art Center’s Board President Tess Lickerman and herself, Ms. Diedrich said the results of the Illinois First Fund facility report “confirm that the 2603 Sheridan Road building will not accommodate our vision for future community programming, and the upgrades and renovations required to provide for a thriving arts center would be prohibitively costly for us at this time. … We ask that you consider allowing us to operate from 2603 Sheridan Road for the next two years … while we solidify plans for another facility. Any less time will seriously impair the future livelihood of this longstanding and highly respected Evanston organization. Thousands of Evanston residents would be without a service that has become an integral part of their lives. Our numerous outreach activities and adult, senior and youth education classes would be sorely missed. One of the region’s most highly regarded exhibition programs would cease, and [more than] 100 citizens – staff, teaching artists, interns and models – would lose critical employment.”

Ms. Diedrich noted that within two days, 1,700 people had signed an online petition to save the Art Center, and said the organization would be willing to pay $111,500 to cure building code and safety violations in exchange for the additional time. “Eight months is not enough,” she said. “Allow us two more years to move out properly.”

Linda Beck, vice president of the Art Center board, said, “The Art Center is an integral piece of Evanston’s fabric.”

Michael Vasilko was the only speaker at the Human Services Committee to voice support for the IDNR plan.

Committee Discussion, Feb. 3

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked Mr. Bobkiewicz whether he had had any discussions with Art Center representatives and whether he had a sense that IDNR’s timetable offered any wiggle room.

“There is no way [for the two organizations] to co-tenant,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “We’ve been dealing with Harley Clarke for a number of years. I [am hesitant about] any kind of intermediate solution or shared tenancy, because it’s my feeling we’d be back here again.”

“A couple of speakers have asked how we got here,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward. “It’s been an unusual journey. We’ve put out a lot of mixed messages to the Art Center,” he said. He added that he “wouldn’t risk losing the Art Center” and thought that eight months is “far too little” time and two years is too much. “I think there’s a bit of room [to maneuver]. Because of the size and complexity of the Art Center, it moves slowly. … I think that there can be a transition that serves both the Art Center and IDNR.”

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, thanked Mr. Bobkiewicz for “finding a viable tenant, after the debacle with Taiwani Enterprises, in a manner that is safe and with a tenant that will pay rent.”

Ald. Burrus also said she disagreed that the City sent mixed messages to the Art Center, “because we talked at least a year before we sent out requests for proposals. … The Art Center has had a very long time. This is not somehow a big surprise to the Art Center. … We need to move forward.”

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she felt the community needs to move forward but in a way that helps the Art Center relocate easily and suitably.

“We need to move ahead and try to get some additional spaces [for the Art Center] if possible. There are some spaces and places in Evanston you might want to look at,” said Ald. Holmes.

Ald. Grover said, “I don’t want to jeopardize the prospective tenancy of IDNR. I think we can proceed in parallel – help to relocate the Art Center and work with IDNR.”

“I hope we will do whatever we can to find a soft landing for the Art Center,” said Ald. Fiske. “Hopefully, their next home will be in Evanston.”

“There is a lot of flexibility here,” said Ald. Tendam. In negotiating with IDNR, he said, the organization must understand that “the lakefront is a concern; the mansion is a concern; the beach is a concern; and the Evanston Art Center is a concern as well.”

City Council Meeting, Feb. 10

More than two dozen people spoke at citizen comment at the Feb. 10 City Council meeting, the majority of them from the Sixth and Seventh wards or from outside of Evanston.

They spoke of the outstanding reputation of the Evanston Art Center and asked that Council grant additional time for the center to find suitable space and relocate. The protests and requests for the most part echoed those made at the Feb. 3 Human Services Committee meeting.

Ald. Grover requested the extension of time so the Art Center would be able to complete its fall programming. The extension would “allow the Art Center to see it through and not interrupt or disrupt ongoing programming,” she said, adding, “I hope and expect they will do what they said they would do in locating new space.”

Ald. Tendam, said he could “go further” and request an additional 18 months.” Alluding to the timetable set out by IDNR – that it would like to be in the mansion as early as October – he said, “The notion of losing IDNR is probably not realistic. My sense is they’re drooling at this opportunity. It’s a beautiful site and could not be more tailored to their needs … and they’re not going to walk away from it for a few months here or there.”

After discussion among themselves and with Mr. Bobkiewicz, aldermen decided that having a specific date by which the building will be vacated would aid in negotiation with the next tenant, whether or not the next tenant is IDNR.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I would like to know what is the legal process for the City to engage in negotiations with a potential tenant without doing a request for proposals [RFP].” She said she thought that when City property was involved, an RFP was often involved. “We couldn’t single out a single party to the exclusion of others,” she said.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said that, since the sole valid response to the RFP was ultimately rejected, and since IDNR had sought out the City, and since discussions about IDNR had been held in public, he felt the City had lived up to its responsibilities. “There is no requirement under the City Code,” he said. “Just practice.”

Ald. Tendam said, “It seems like we are pre-empting the process to some degree.”

Ald. Grover said, “I think there are several ways we find tenants for City property. We used a different process to fill City-owned property on Howard Street,” she said, as well as for securing new tenants, such as Evanston Township, in the Civic Center.

“I’m still looking at the IDNR idea as an idea, because in my mind it’s not a proposal,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “Everyone recognizes the Art Center provides something of value. The dollar-a-year lease – they’re not stealing from us or anything. That was arranged because they were providing something of value to the community. I think we all realize that and appreciate that.”

Repairs, Timeline

Almost tangential to the debate was the “to-do” list of repairs to the mansion. The Illinois First Facility report listed about $111,500 in repairs necessary to bringing the building up to code. Other repairs and rehab projects could bring the cost up to $5 million. How much of these costs the City will need to absorb, and how much money a new tenant, IDNR or other, would put in is unclear.

Representatives of IDNR have said they are willing to put some money into the mansion. At a public meeting on Jan. 15, IDNR Chief of Staff Todd Main said the department has money to bring the mansion up to code. “We are not scared of the cost. … We want to maintain the integrity of the building,” he said.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would ask IDNR to make some of the repairs but added, “It is often difficult to ask a new tenant to provide repairs from a previous tenant.”IDNR Proposal

A Jan. 31 letter from Diane Tecic, IDNR’s Coastal Program director, to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz reiterated IDNR’s interest in the mansion and a partnership with the City. It expressed the hope that the City would make a decision soon “so that IDNR can either begin working through an agreement and planning for a move to the Harley Clarke facility or continue looking for an alternate location for our Coastal Management Program and offices.”

With a go-ahead from the City, the letter said, IDNR would like to have an agreement in place by the spring, begin planning and design work in the summer and relocate to the mansion in the fall or winter.

Whether the Council’s grant of extra time will be an obstacle to the negotiations is unclear, but Mr. Bobkiewicz told City Council, “I will do everything in my poer to make it work.”

In a separate interview, Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam told the RoundTable that while “mixed messages” might not have been a precise description of the situation between the City and the Art Center, he felt there has been “so much uncertainty” around the future of the Art Center and of the mansion. “They have been through a lot,” he said.

Before the IDNR proposal came along, “We gave them a green light to come back with a proposal,” Ald. Tendam said.

Norah Diedrich, executive director of the Evanston Art Center, told the RoundTable, “From my perspective the ‘mixed messaging’ has come from the [new] deadline. We were told first to ‘keep working’ on finding a place to relocate. The City said, ‘We need to know you’re making progress.’ … In September, we were asked whether we wished to stay or go. We didn’t have a place to go, so we asked for time to work with the Illinois First Fund [to assess code violations and needed repairs] and have time for IFF to finish the report. We were granted time and told to come [to the Human Services Committee] in February – and in that period of time we had in fact done the work we said we would do with IFF. … Then, it seems to us, after another [potential] tenant was found, there was a deadline. … The fact that IDNR had a public meeting – that’s the reason we have to be out in 240 days. … One has to wonder, ‘Were we being played all along?’ … I would rather have had someone at the City saying, ‘You can have a year and a half’ rather than all this rhetoric.”

Ms. Diedrich also said, “There is something a little bit unsettling about this process – how it seemed decided, how IDNR has been accepted. … We have a lease that goes to 2021 and have been operating in good faith. … I am feeling very disheartened by the process and by the victimization of the EAC.”

Both Ald. Tendam and Ms. Diedrich appeared determinedly hopeful about the future of the Art Center. Ald. Tendam said the Art Center has a “progressive board” that will search for a new place. “They have people [who] will really make this work.”

“We are enthusiastic about new programs that we are already offering. … We have some really cool things that we want to do, and we will do them,” said Ms. Diedrich. … “We have close to 2000 signatures on the petition. The comments say the programming at the Art Center is ‘fantastic.’… I think [the City wants] us out of the building, and we will find interim space. “