It is back to square one for the Harley Clarke mansion as Council voted 7-2 on April 9 to reject a proposed lease of a portion of the grounds to the Evanston Lake House and Gardens not-for-profit. Alderman raised three main problems with a proposed lease and overall proposal, six-months in the making and recommended by City staff. They were unswayed by a passionate group of supporters once again filling Council chambers and the anteroom, or the speakers, who were roughly three to one in favor of the proposal.

Problems were clear from the outset of Council’s debate. Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, initially spoke in favor detailing the history of the property since 2008. Sensing the frustration of Council with the ELHG lease, she ended her comments with a near plea. “If you have concerns with the lease, I’d like to hear what they are tonight,” she said, and hold or delay a vote so concerns could be addressed. 

Then began the catalog of aldermanic problems with the proposal. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th ward, was the first to speak, He began with the “risk of loss provisions,” which he said exposed the City to potentially enormous financial obligations. One provision required the City to rebuild the building if it was more than 85% destroyed by fire at any point in the 40-year lease term. Given ELHG would pay but $1 a year in rent, “I really don’t think the Evanston taxpayers” want to be on the hook for millions in restoration costs 25 years from now, he said. 

Insurance and risk provisions were a major problem for a number of aldermen, 

Ald. Wilson then turned to a second major problem he found, the fund-raising goals. The lease would have required ELHG to raise $5 million over ten years. Several speakers argued approving the lease was a mere rubber stamp on a Council vote in November authorizing the City Manager to negotiate a lease with the group. Trust your staff, said ELHG Jeff Smith in citizen comment – you pay them good money. Approving the lease “should be a boring, routine act, not high drama.”

John Walsh of ELHG said since Council’s November vote, discussion over the merits of the plan were over. “That ship sailed last November when Council voted to accept” ELHG’s proposal, he said. 

“To me, it’s really not [the November] proposal at all,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “It’s a counter-proposal.” In November, he said, the group promised to raise $4.8 million in two years, and $6 million within three. He called the lease, requiring only $5 million over ten years, “radically different” from the proposal presented in November. 

When Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, a supporter of ELHG in the past, spoke, the writing was on the wall, “Ten years is too long to raise $5 million,” she said. “I would need it to be shortened to support this.” 

She also found the insurance and liability provisions unacceptable. “Those have to be addressed in a way that the City is protected,” she said.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she long supported a proposal for Harley Clarke that would be “sustainable and not require a civic bailout.” The current proposal failed because of the risk the City would be liable for significant costs, she said, “or worse – damage to the lakefront.” She also protested what she feared would be commercialization at the site, saying the project may become a “de facto commercial” venture on the lakefront. 

Possible budget issues tripped up Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd ward. “It is a very difficult for me to support this project given our budget priorities,” he said. He also said major donors would and should be focusing on other projects, such as the library, the Family Focus building, and the McGaw YMCA, “just to name a few.” 

“I’m disappointed the lease proposal isn’t coming stronger,” said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward. “All informed opinions” she heard cautioned that the lease “leaves the City exposed.”

She also referenced donor fatigue, turning to a coming campaign to save the Family Focus building. At a recent event to kick off the campaign and examine the “historic” Family Focus building, she said only five people showed up. 

She seemed to bristle at the claims by several speakers that failing to approve the ELHG would deny equitable access to the lakefront. Claire Tallon Ruen said voting for the lease “would speak to Evanston’s commitment to equity.”

Carliss Sutton called the decision about “access or restrictions.” Voting no, he said, would restrict access to the beach. “I don’t want to go back there,” to a time when his family was denied access.

Janelle Johnson said the proposal would make “access to the lake more equitable.”

Ald. Rue Simmons said proponents should not use talk of equity and inclusion to push their particular agenda. Family Focus serves the families in the community that need help the most, she said. ELHG would not, she implied. 

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, agreed. She also took issue with a provision in the lease permitting ELHG to terminate the lease if environmental issues costing over $150,000 to remediate were found.

Procedurally, Ald. Revelle tried to salvage the proposal by temporarily tabling the lease so it could be reworked in a way that would satisfy the insurance risk and fund-raising concerns. Ald. Wynne joined her motion to table until April 23. But only Ald. Wilson and Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th ward, joined the vote, and the motion to table failed 5-4.

Ald. Braithwaite then called the question on the vote on the lease itself. Only Ald, Suffredin and Ald. Revelle voted “Yes,” and the measure failed 7-2. Disappointed and sometimes angry supporters streamed out of Council chambers wondering what might be next.