In July of 2013, the City Council voted to reject a proposal from Taiwani Enterprises to purchase the Harley Clarke mansion and some of the surrounding property for a boutique hotel.
Some things have changed since then. The economy has grown stronger. The City is running pretty well with minimal tax increases. Violence is down thanks in no small part to outreach efforts by the City and the Police Department to address some of the root problems. The two school districts have outstanding leadership and are each headed in a positive direction. The Cradle to Career initiative is under way, with a long-range vision to strengthen us as a community.
All this is not to ignore what is happening in Springfield. The legislature is contemplating a so-called school financing reform bill that would cost our school districts millions of dollars ad infinitum. These lawmakers are also looking at a way to shift some of the teacher pension costs to the school districts, attempting to shirk its responsibility to fund the system it created. The Governor has proposed cuts that would result in unconscionable harm to vulnerable residents of Evanston and the State.
These threats should help reinforce a conservative mindset in the Council and the community. We should conserve our assets, not sell a precious asset so a rich person can get even richer. Yet a lot of people, several of them in power, are hewing to a convenient but inaccurate cliché that the mansion is a white elephant, a drain on the City and the community and something we should rid ourselves of as quickly as possible. It is not only false; it is destructive to having a meaningful conversation about the future of this precious community asset.
There are many reasons not to sell the mansion for private use. General public policy is one. Selling a viable City asset is a rash move, one that clearly is not motivated by concern for the community at large. Second, as was said at a recent meeting of the Harley Clarke Committee, the City is undervaluing itself by cheapening this asset. Several professionals have come forward to offer their professional opinions that the City’s cost estimates to upgrade the mansion were inflated. And at the April 15 Harley Clarke Committee meeting, the City gave estimates to make the mansion habitable and leasable that were far below other estimates that have been bandied about by those with short-sighted dollar signs in their eyes: $170,000 to make safe and $600,000 to make it habitable or leasable.
Certainly, we have been through some lean years and financial squeezes from Springfield are on the horizon. But there is money for capital improvement and maintenance and there is a lot of talent and innovation on the part of the residents.
Rather than looking for a way to shed the property, the City should be taking two positive steps: The first is to look for a public entity to take over the mansion and keep it public. Expanding a park district has been suggested. This would take some time and a referendum and a bit of maneuvering: Lighthouse Park District would have to purchase the property legally from the City. To do so might also entail expanding its boundaries to include more taxpayers to foot the bill.
A second idea is for the City to kick in some money to make the building habitable and use the space as a recreation center and special-event space. Concerts, weddings, conferences and the like could be held there.
Another option is to find a private partner to lease the property for public and private use – a café on the first floor, for example, and a place for special events above.
Evanston has invested heavily in the south end of town, and the corridor of Howard Street where the City has created partnerships to encourage economic development is doing well. Money spent on the mansion could offer similar returns.
In addition, the City should immediately start trying to acquire land along the lakefront, not shed it. As we pointed out in a previous editorial, the majority of the lakefront from Clark Street Beach to Garden Park is public. North of that, there is only Lighthouse Beach. In addition to its lakefront protection ordinance, the City should establish a lakefront acquisition fund and do its best to re-acquire land that is now held privately whenever it is offered for sale. This could easily be done, fashioning it after the City-established foundations that accept money for trees and parks. It would be a slow process but we see it as a critical one.
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. … It is heartening to know that we have a Council that I believe will not sell public land and that we have a community that would not let us sell public land if we were going to sell public land.”
We echo that sentiment and hope it will ring loud and clear throughout Evanston.