Mayor Stephen Hagerty: “Accept the general premise that residents want us, the City Council, to work hard  to save the mansion.” Photo by Bob Seidenberg

City Council members moved forward on a reset plan for the Harley Clarke Mansion March 11, setting a nine month period to find new users for the historic property. The Council as a whole is moving ahead  on the issue, though some members continue to voice deep reservations about the building’s reuse.

In a special discussion at the start of the March 11 City Council meeting, Alderman Donald  Wilson, 4th Ward, proposed that staff prepare a request for a proposal to go out, inviting interest in the lakefront building, shuttered since the Evanston Art Center moved out in 2015.

Under Ald. Wilson’s proposal, the City would continue to maintain ownership of the property. The request process would run for nine months and would be open to for-profit as well as not-for-profit and non-profit organizations.

Ald. Wilson’s proposal would give members of the public a role as members of one of the evaluation committees that would be established to review any requests for new uses. In addition, the City would consider separate proposals for the mansion and the coach house, rather than grouping the  buildings together.

In opening the process to both for-profit and not-for-profit entities, Ald. Wilson said his intent now was “to give as broad an opportunity as possible to get ideas out there.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty had earlier proposed a similar “reset” but with a time period of 18 months. Ald. Wilson argued for the shorter period, pointing to the community conversations citizen groups have been holding recently on future use of the building.

  “I feel that they pretty well vetted the community perceptions on what the property’s accessibility and use should be,” he said.

Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, seemed to think that even nine months was stretching things out. “If you can make a person in nine months you should be able to come up with a proposal,” he said.

Alderman Judy Fiske, in whose First Ward the property is located, said the funding challenges the City faces elsewhere “is really what is informing the Council on how to move forward here, with Harley Clarke.”

Aldermen have a role of fiduciary responsibility toward all the taxpayers, she noted.  In that light, “I just have not seen anything …  that says to me that there  is a way to bring up to have a public use for this building that actually is going to pay for it.”

 Ald. Fiske said she would be more than willing for City staff to go into the building and provide officials with an update of the cost of repairs the building needs, noting that one of the Harley Clarke citizens groups placed that figure at $5 million.

Beyond that, “it needs to be demonstrated that there is a source for that funding somewhere,” she argued, “because otherwise we’re all  just heading down the road of  wishful thinking  and that I think is what’s eating us alive.”

The March  11 discussion was the first full-fledged Council discussion of Harley Clarke since Evanston residents  overwhelmingly approved an advisory referendum last fall, calling on the City to protect the landmark  building and grounds from demolition.

Harley Clarke citizen groups, meanwhile, have held several workshops in recent months, drawing enthusiastic turnouts, with participants exploring uses for the building – especially those that are financially self-sustaining.

 Kicking off discussion of the issue at the Council meeting, Mayor Hagerty noted the City had previously gone through four different options for use of building, with all of them eventually falling through. The different uses proposed for the building included a boutique hotel, offices for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management program and a discussion last year about demolishing the building, he noted.

At this point, Mayor Hagerty said, in his view, “there is no community consensus,” and he questioned whether there will ever be.

 “Nonetheless the issue has been around for a while and we need to set a path for it and hopefully reach a resolution and move on to other important issues,” he said.

He acknowledged that a lot of distrust has grown around the issue, making it “a very challenging environment for us” to move forward. He said a strict interpretation of the referendum’s language could also inhibit response from interested parties, maintaining that if carried forward it could be construed as opposing private investment and against commercial use for someone interested in the site.

“No one is going to invest in a mansion unless they own the building. I feel very, very strong about that,” Mayor Hagerty said. “You’re not going to get somebody to put $5 million or $10 million bucks into that mansion if you say that it is still City property.”

 He said one alternative might involve the City’s leasing the land under the mansion, a practice that has been used elsewhere.

 In the meantime, “my suggestion for moving forward is accept the general premise that residents want us, the City Council, to work hard  to save the mansion,” he told his audience, which included a number of Harley Clarke supporters active in the referendum  to save  the historic building from demolition.

Supporters of saving the mansion had different reactions to the Council’s vote in support of a new direction.

Jen Shadur, a board member for the Friends of Harley Clarke group, expressed hope that “the City Council will take into account everything the community has fought for, all its ideas and be very thoughtful in the process.”

 She also expressed the wish that the City would join with the Friends of Harley Clarke “so we can start to clean up the grounds, bring the house back to life, in parallel to the RFP [request for proposal] process.”

Expanding on that view, Lori Keenan, also a Friends of Harley Clarke member, said, “We hope the Council really approaches this with a fair, open and optimistic mindset to secure a use so that Harley Clarke becomes a jewel to this City for residents and visitors, which includes a component of public use inviting for those in every ward.”

“We also hope,” Ms. Keenan said, “that they try to follow the referendum where 80% of residents, 27,000 voters, told the Council that they wanted to save the building with some form of public use and sustainable funding model that wouldn’t cost the taxpayers.”

A letter from the Evanston/North Shore NAACP also confirmed that organization’s concern about the issue’s future course.

 “Records show that residents in the Fifth Ward [predominately African American] voted  overwhelmingly on the referendum in favor of keeping the beautiful, historic lakefront mansion available for public use,” said the group, in the letter read into the record  at the Council meeting. 

“While the City will receive any number of proposals for how the mansion should be utilized, we want to be assured that its future programs and events will keep in mind the African American community, as well as the Latino, Belize, Haitian, Jamaican and other minority communities in our town.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.