In a surprising development, the City’s Human Services Committee on Sept. 3 and the City Council on Sept. 8 discussed a proposal to sell the Harley Clarke mansion and its coach house, located at 2603 Sheridan Road, to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
An ordinance that would direct the City Manager to negotiate for the sale of the buildings and for a long-term ground lease of the land beneath them was introduced without comment at the Sept. 8 City Council meeting. A vote is expected at the Sept. 22 City Council meeting.
For several months, IDNR has indicated its desire to use the site for its coastal management program. Until recently, however, both sides had indicated that IDNR would lease the property.
Jeff Smith, general counsel for IDNR, told the RoundTable last week, “IDNR is committed to keeping the public property public in perpetuity.”
The Clarke mansion has been home to the Evanston Art Center for more than 40 years. If the City Council decides to sell the mansion, it is likely that the Art Center would have to move in the next few months. It has identified a building at 1717 Central St. as its new home and is raising funds to that end.
A notice in the Aug. 22 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times stating that the Administration and Public Works Committee of the City Council would discuss the ordinance at its Sept. 8 meeting, and an item for discussion on the Sept. 3 Human Services agenda were the first public inklings that a sale of the buildings was under consideration.
July Meeting on Sale Price
At the July 7 Human Services Committee meeting, Mr. Smith said the state was “very serious” about the project, about keeping the facility public and preserving the historic qualities of the building, about retaining public access and “above all, listening to the community” as to “how the property should be used.”
The next public notices were an Aug. 22 ad in the Sun-Times and the agenda for the Sept. 3 Human Services Committee, posted on the City’s website and sent via email to subscribers of certain City news items on Aug. 30.
Between July 7 and Aug. 22, though, the City learned that IDNR wished to purchase the buildings.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable the City “learned in July” that IDNR was interested in purchasing the buildings. “I went to City Council in executive session on July 28 … and asked the City Council for a price,” he said. Per the Illinois Open Meetings Act, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “there was no further discussion” at that meeting. He declined to say what price was discussed.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he and Corporation Council Grant Farrar “felt it prudent not to begin public discussion” about the potential sale of the buildings in August, when so many people are on vacation. “The next opportunity” was the Sept. 3 Human Services meeting, he said.
“The [Aug. 22] notice was placed by the Law Department, when I requested that they prepare an ordinance requesting authorization for me to negotiate the sale of buildings and lease of property,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. He also said, “There was no City Council direction to place the ad.”
The notice of intent to sell represents a change from the expressed sentiment of Council members in July of 2013, when Council members voted to reject a plan to sell the property to Colonel J. N. Pritzker, who wished to convert it into a boutique hotel. At a City Council meeting on July 22, 2013, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “I do not believe we should sell park land … I do not believe that we should sell public land, nor do I believe that this Council intends to sell public land.”
IDNR Feels It Must Own
Financial considerations on the part of IDNR, however, may have been the driving force for that side of the table. Although IDNR personnel appeared confident earlier this year that it could obtain sufficient funds to bring the building up to code and further rehab it, that seems to have changed. Estimates to repair and rehab the building ranged from about $1.5 million to about $5 million.
On Sept. 4, Mr. Smith told the RoundTable, “It is problematic for a state agency to spend that kind of money on something they’re not going to own.”
At the Sept. 3 Human Services Committee, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said, “In order to come up with $5-$6 million [for the rehab] – they will be able to tap into [funding sources] if they own the building.”
Similarly, at the Sept. 8 City Council meeting, Diane Tecic, Coastal Management Program manager at IDNR, said, “…as we began looking at the costs and what we were going to need to invest in the property – we have such a strong interest, with this being a coastal community and the property being on the coast and being a public place – that we would like to make this investment, but a lot of our dollars are limited” by the fact that IDNR would not own the property.
“I know there is a lot of concern about the State of Illinois and the deficit of dollars, but there are potential funding sources … This is actually an investment for IDNR as a whole. … We want to invest in this area and increase our presence. … So we can bring these other dollars to bear on the property if it’s a sale rather than a lease. The lease really hampers our ability to do so. … Our coastal program is very new, and we feel the City of Evanston is a really great place to be. … We really feel strongly about continuing our discussions.”
Narrow Margin at the Human Services Committee
By a 3-2 vote, the Human Services Committee recommended that the full Council discuss a negotiated sale of the buildings and a lease of the ground to IDNR. Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Delores Holmes, 5th Ward; and Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, voted in favor of forwarding the issue to City Council. Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, and Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, voted against.
Both Alds. Braithwaite and Holmes said they were comfortable with the sale and the lease. Ald. Tendam said he reluctantly voted yes, because he thought it was the only way for the City to shed the liability for the mansion.
Ald. Burrus said she objected to the potential programming, which she said might not be open to all, and to the “limited public space.”
Ald. Fiske said she felt that selling the building was “taking a step backward” and that she would rather see the building dismantled and the property revert to its original open space than sell the building.
The Buildings After IDNR
At both the Sept. 3 Human Services Committee meeting and the Sept. 8 City Council meeting, representatives of NoParkSale, now called Evanston Parks and Lakefront Alliance (EPLA), raised a concern about the provision in the resolution dealing with what would happen to the buildings should IDNR decide to vacate them.
Barbara Janes of EPLA said, “We think [one of the provisions of the negotiation should be] that the building will revert to the City at no cost if or when IDNR wants to leave, no ifs, ands or buts.”
EPLA also requests that the property “remain in the public domain and remain consistent with the lakefront master plan.” Ms. Janes said EPLA also requested that, the final product of the negotiations be made public before City Council approves it.
Jeanne Lindwall, an urban planner, said, “The devil is in the detail.” She also said, “It is really important that the City Manager be given clear direction [in the upcoming negotiations].” She said the proposed IDNR use is “consistent with the lakefront master plan,” but the same might not be true of another program or use by a different state agency, should IDNR no longer use the buildings.
During the time leading up to the Sept. 8 City Council meeting, some people voiced fears to the RoundTable that a vote against the sale would scuttle the IDNR project and leave the property open again to the threat of privatization.
The silence of the Council, however, may indicate that only the details of the sale, rather than the question of it, remain to be discussed.
Procedures for the Sale of City-Owned Property
Section 1-17-4-2 of the City Code sets out the necessary steps for the City to sell any of its real property. In a negotiated sale, which this sale would likely be, the procedure is threefold: First, City Council must publish a notice of intent to sell “at least once in a daily or weekly newspaper in general circulation in the City” between 15 and 30 days before the ordinance is to be considered. Next, Council must adopt an ordinance directing that this be a negotiated sale and naming the party to negotiate on the City’s behalf. The ordinance must be adopted by a two-thirds majority of all elected aldermen – that is, six – not just two-thirds of the aldermen present at the meeting.
After Council has received a recommendation from the negotiating parties, “if it concurs [with the recommendation, it] shall direct the sale” by adopting an ordinance by a two-thirds majority of all elected aldermen.