Front of the coach house of the Harley Clarke mansion. Photo from City of Evanston

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With a general consensus  that the Harley Clarke mansion should be kept for public use, but little agreement on anything else – even the meaning of “public use” – aldermen  agreed to hold discussion until the Oct. 12 City Council meeting. Home to the Evanston Art Center for more than 40 years, the mansion has been shuttered since June, when the Art Center moved to 1717 Central St.

The issue of the future of the Clarke mansion was on the Sept. 21 City Council agenda as a discussion item. City staff recommended that Council decide what it would like to see in a request for proposals for use of the mansion, and then direct the City Manager to prepare a draft RFP for consideration at its Oct. 19 meeting. To craft the RFP, City staff asked Council members to decide what portion of the property should be included in the RFP – the mansion, the coach house, portions of the surrounding land, or pieces of each. Council also was asked to decide on whether a long-term lease or an outright sale was preferable, whether the RFP should specify a for-profit or not-for-profit user, and what should be done to address the problems of mold and peeling paint.

During the citizen comment period of the meeting, Mike Vasilko said he recommended a for-profit entity “to develop the property and pay taxes.”

Several residents spoke in favor of keeping the mansion and grounds open for public use. Others said they favored selling the mansion.

 Mary Rosinski said, “There’s a benefit [in the park and lakefront] that we get every day, and you cannot put a dollar amount on it.”

Sheila Sullivan of the Southeast Evanston Association said her organization supports “renovating the building and operating it for not-for-profit uses to benefit all citizens of Evanston. Here we are with all the trust we placed in you, and all you have to do is keep that going as open space and keep the property for public use.”

John Walsh presented a vision for the Harley Clarke mansion that might have seemed a pipe dream to some when it was presented last spring. He said he spoke for a group of “committed Evanston residents who wish to see the Clarke mansion become an educational and culture center which will be for the entire community.” The group is an Illinois not-for-profit corporation and has applied for a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Although they have not settled on a name for the group, the name for the project – restoring the mansion and grounds and preserving them for public use – is “Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens.” Information about the groups and their vision can be found at evanstonlakehouse.org.

During Council discussion, several of the aldermen appeared to support a public use of the property. Some said they preferred a lease – 25, 59 or 99 years. “There should be no sale of any land,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. “The buildings should be sold, but the land should be leased. … How much land is determined by the use.” She said the building should be kept for public use.

An example of public use, some aldermen appeared to feel, would be a restaurant where anyone with enough money could dine. Others appeared to favor a place more accessible to everyone.

“I prefer a lease to a sale,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward. “I prefer private investment over public; private investment … makes it more sustainable. The lease should be 25 or 50 years … allowing the investor to make use of his investment.” He also said he “does not want to interfere with or have funding competition with the new Robert Crown Center.”

Ald. Rainey proposed that the City issue two RFPs, one for not-for-profits and one for for-profits. “When we get them, we analyze them and choose the best,” she said.

“I like keeping it open for public use, that it’s accessible to all Evanston,” said Alderperson Jane Grover, 7th Ward. “The place that I’d like to start with is ‘What is the activity?’ We can work out what the public use is. Evanston Lakehouse & Garden is a really nice proposal. I hope they‘ll consider partnering with another not-for-profit group to ratchet things up. In the beginning and in the end, what we need is a viable option – a long-term viable option.” She said other not-for-profits might have more money or more experience and could help the Lakehouse group.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “I agree we should not sell the land. I question whether we should even sell the house. … I am not in favor of any for-profit use at this location. We have to be careful that it not become a commercial-like entity.” She said operating a restaurant at the site – something that the Lakehouse group envisions – would entail delivery trucks, garbage trucks, a grease trap, etc. She said that whenever someone tells her it would be nice to have a nice meal on the lake, “I say, ‘You can have a picnic and then you pack up and go home. The next time, someone might read a book [at that same spot].’”

Ald. Grover said, “I’m not sure we have the same definition of ‘commercialization.’ There can be commercialization heavy and commercialization light.” She indicated that she might support a café in the coach house.

“I won’t support going out for an RFP,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “We have a community group that is working hard. They’re here; they have their finger on the pulse of the community. … I would rather give the people in our community a little more time.” Referring to the state of the coach house, which City staff said has much mold and peeling paint, she said, “The peeling paint in there was caused by us. We were spending money on Howard Street, but we didn’t spend money keeping up this property – and I think that’s shameful.”

“This really demonstrates the choices – what we choose to do about the property,” said Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward. “Public access has to mean ‘truly open and comfortable to use.’ Changing the property to a use such as a boutique hotel will make people not [feel] comfortable. This beach, contrary to what people like to say, is about as heavily used as Clark Street Beach. Making it less comfortable to use will change the character of it. We’ve given $2 million to a grocery store; another $2 million for a grocery store parking lot; $1 million for streets. We’re making choices to do other things and not to take care of Harley Clarke. We need to maintain the things that we have. We don’t need to give them away.”

Ninth Ward Alderman Brian Miller said, “A bedrock principle is the public trust – having the public trust in their government and holding things in trust for the public. … I don’t think we should sell any portion of the land, and I agree that we don’t need an RFP. … I think there’s an opportunity to have a foundation to support the building.”

Ald. Miller also said he believes the Lakehouse group should be given more time. … I’d like to issue a challenge to our community: If this is truly the will of the community, let’s work together.”

On Ald. Miller’s motion, the discussion was held until the Oct. 12 City Council meeting.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she believes the delay is “kicking the can down the road.”

 Ald. Miller said, “I think there’s probably a workable compromise. … I think we can work something out in two weeks.”