We have three wishes for Harley Clarke – for the property, the mansion and the committee: that the property not be sold under any condition or for any reason; that at least a substantial part of the mansion be kept for public use, although some space could be rented for private events; and that the City Council will respect the recommendations of the ad-hoc Harley Clarke Mansion Committee. 

Members of that committee have been working diligently for more than a month on finding a use for the Harley Clarke mansion once it is vacated in June. Residents have chipped in with dozens of ideas, and, led by chair Steve Hagerty, committee members have examined proposals to demolish the mansion and to move it and are in the process of looking at those for adaptive re-use. At the outset the committee members agreed they would not consider any option that does not preserve the public beach or blocks public access to the beach.

After three meetings, committee members are shaping the landscape of their mission: “to identify, develop and evaluate the viability of options in the context of the criteria developed by the committee.”

Their recommendations to City Council will have to balance environmental, quality of life and financial gains inherent in each recommendation – both immediate and long-term – against the costs of implementing any of them.  A threshold question is whether this beautiful, though dilapidated, landmark building should be demolished or adaptively re-used.

We see benefits in each, but only if the adaptive re-use is public or semi-public. We strongly oppose selling this City-owned asset. We believe it should be kept for public use or demolished. We understand that it will cost money. However, we know that other City-owned buildings cost the taxpayers money to maintain. Not everything in the City is or should be run as a business.

Demolishing the building will not be cheap. The foundation must be dug out, all the debris cleared away and the space re-graded. Trees and plants would need protection and possible restoration or replacement. Sale of the salvage materials – the brick, copper collection boxes and downspouts and other ornamentation – will likely offset some of the projected $500,000 cost to the City. A less tangible but certainly more lasting gain is the some 20,000 square feet of open space. If one considers only the size, it might be easy to be dismissive of the gain.

This, however, is lakefront property, and, as one member of the committee said at the March 11 meeting, $500,000 is not a lot to pay for land that will benefit the community immediately and possibly for the next hundred years.

While open lakefront, parks and public beaches stretch almost continuously south from Clark Street to Howard Street, that is not the case to the north. Northwestern University’s beach is private, and its policy about community use of the lakefill is contradictory: On the one hand, the Northwestern Observer and University officials have for many years touted one of the benefits to Evanston was that the University maintains the lakefill for public use. However, the sign at the south end clearly states that the admission is only for Northwestern personnel and their guests – essentially making the lakefill private, as is the adjoining beach.

Lighthouse Beach, then, is the only beach and the parkland there is the only open lakefront in Evanston north of Clark Street. Adding to the openness there and increasing the vista would conform to the policy of keeping the lakefront – not just the beach – open and public.

On March 11, committee members began discussing adaptive re-use of the building. There are guesses, studies and estimates – none really up-to-date – ranging from about $1 million to bring it up to code to $4-$7 million to renovate and restore it. Carl Bova, an engineer by profession and an Evanston resident, cited sources he trusted and said he thought the cost of renovation would be about $4 million.

Whether this amount is prohibitive for the City is an open question.

Words dropped by a committee member in that part of the discussion, almost as an aside, give us cause for concern: that the committee is to come up with an option that does not cost the City any money.

We hope that inference was the result only of a miscommunication – not of a subtle or veiled charge to the committee. For if the charge to the committee is to come up with an option that results in no cost to the City, then the committee has no real independent purpose. Holding meetings would be a waste of the committee members’ time and an ugly prank on the community – particularly after the City Council voted nearly two years ago not to sell the property.

If the mission of the committee is in fact what the members themselves approved at the first meeting, then we wish them the best: Spin this straw into gold.