Photo by Mary Mumbrue

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources confirmed and elaborated on plans to convert the Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, into a coastal management project. Jeff Smith, longtime Evanston resident, delivered the report to the City’s Human Services Committee on July 7, in his new role as General Counsel for the IDNR.

“To put a coastal management project right on the coast could not be a better fit,” said Mr. Smith. “We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback” about the project, which presents “an amazing synergy” between the City, the state, the environmental community, and the public.

Addressing some concerns in the City, Mr. Smith said that the IDNR came to Council in part to “reassure the City. We’ve heard second hand that some people think this is a myth or wishful thinking.” It is not, he said. The state is “very serious” about the project, keeping the facility public, and preserving the historic qualities of the building, retaining public access, and “above all listening to the City” as to “how the property should be used.”

Repairing the Harley Clarke mansion, and maintaining it, have long been sticking points for the City. Estimates as to the cost of making the building suitable for public use have started at a minimum of $1.5 million and ranged considerably higher. A staff memo prepared for the Human Services Committee confirmed “renovations needed to bring the building up to code are expected to cost nearly $5 million.”

The State did not blink at that number, but instead acknowledged the cost and reaffirmed its commitment to make the necessary renovations. Mr. Smith said the IDNR anticipated several different streams of funding. Federal funds would come from funds authorized under the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act. The law’s stated purpose is “to preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the Nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations.”

Recognizing that politics can play a role in federal funding, Mr. Smith first cautioned against becoming “paralyzed” by such risk, then said the IDNR was “looking for ways to make the funding more robust.” Options include revenue bonds and general funds. Either way, he said, the State is committed to the project and plans to move forward.

The next step is for the City and the State to prepare an agreement as to the property, a process that both sides anticipate will be concluded in September.

Plans for the building include offices for the State’s Coastal Management program on the second floor and classroom space on the first floor. Once contractual issues are ironed out and the building is vacant, “IDNR hopes to complete construction and begin occupancy of the office portion of the facility by the spring or summer of 2015,” according to the City staff memo.

“It’s always nice to be here in any capacity,” said Mr. Smith. One benefit of the project, he concluded, is the opportunity to “introduce Evanston to a wider audience.”