A Jan. 5 letter from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announcing that IDNR “must respectfully decline the City of Evanston’s proposal” threw the fate of the Harley Clarke mansion back into limbo, and neither the City’s Human Services Committee nor the City Council offered much hope of a solution. The City-owned mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road, has been home to the Evanston Art Center for more than 40 years.
Ultimately, Council voted to create another committee and gave the committee until May to come up with proposals.
The IDNR offered two reasons for pulling out of the deal, under which it would have purchased the building to house its Coastal Management program. First, the letter said, IDNR’s “ability to [fund the project is] severely limited by not owning, outright, both the land and the building.” The City has to date refused to sell anything but the building itself, offering the land for lease only.
Second, given the change in administration in Springfield, “the current administration is unable to enter into… an agreement that commits future funding to a significant new initiative. We must defer to the new administration as they determine their priorities for state investments.”
At the Jan. 5 Human Service Committee meeting, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said IDNR’s decision heightened the City’s “quandary” over what to do with the mansion. “We have a building which everyone agrees needs significant repair,” he said. “My feeling is it’s going to be very difficult to find a tenant … that could meet our terms.”
Community members and groups have presented numerous terms and conditions that they insist the City include in any deal regarding the mansion. Some, including First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, insist the City retain ownership of the land. Other conditions require deed restrictions that limit transferability of the land.
Mr. Bobkiewicz asked for authority to investigate what he called the “most radical option,” tearing down the mansion, or “deconstruction.”
The Art Center plans to relocate to 1717 Central St. in June. “My main concern is that on June 1, 2015, the building will be empty” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. What the City will do with the building is “a policy decision of this Council,” he added.
Speakers suggested the City give the Rauner administration an opportunity to review the IDNR proposal before completely jettisoning the Coastal Management program concept. Diane Williams and Garry Shoemaker, the incoming and outgoing chairs of the Preservation Committee, appeared and offered assistance for what Ms. Williams called “ultimately a vexing challenge.”
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “I’m very disappointed that the IDNR proposal looks like it’s not going to work out. The Harley Clarke mansion seems like the manner in which this community beats itself up over the last three years.” She referenced the Tawani Enterprises’ proposal, spearheaded by Colonel J.N. Pritzker, which the City “not so politely declined.”
“We have not found a groundswell” within the community as to “what should be done,” Ald. Grover said.
“I suggest we have a very [thorough] heart-to-heart with the Rauner administration,” said Ald. Fiske. Other than that, she suggested, “we need input from the community.”
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, expressed frustration with the lack of progress, saying that she had been “the most vocal on this for … years.” She decried community efforts to torpedo the Tawani proposal with “some hoo-hah signs everywhere,” and said the City needed to “do something about this. Make a decision.” As for community input, she suggested “put[ing] out for referendum” whether or not to sell the property to a private developer.
On Ald. Grover’s motion, the matter moved on to Council without recommendations or even an idea as to how to solve what everyone agrees is a challenging problem.
City Council at its Jan. 12 meeting agreed to form a committee composed of members of the Preservation Commission, citizens and aldermen to provide guidance and possible ideas. The exact makeup of the committee has not been determined, but the new committee must report back to Council in May with, ideally, a number of realistic options.