With an expanded tour schedule to view the property and creation of a website dedicated to supplying information to interested parties, the City is moving forward on a new search to find a user for its lakefront Harley Clarke mansion and coach house.

At the April 15 regular City Council meeting, aldermen approved a request for proposal (RFP) to find a new user for the mansion and grounds, which have sat vacant since 2015 and were the subject of a citizen referendum last fall to save the buildings from demolition.

Under the Council action, the request for proposal process will start May 16 and run nine months with a deadline for submissions of 2 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2020.

Aldermen approved the RFP, differing on whether to include sale of the buildings to interested users as an alternative to a long-term lease.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, favored a long-term lease of the properties at 2603 Sheridan Rd. over a sale. In this case, “a long- term lease would be something similar and actually retain our ability to control what happens at the property,” she argued.

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, noted that under the terms of the proposal, the City would still own the ground under the property, making it not a true sale anyway. He said a sale in this case also “doesn’t have a logical transition” if an inheritance question were to arise.

But Mayor Stephen Hagerty pointed out that a new owner could end up putting in $5 million or even $7 million in renovating the buildings for public use.

He said a sale, then, provides the assurance to the new owner that “you are granted the right to control this mansion for the function that the City Council approved for a significant amount of time. So they are getting a return on their investment and capturing all of this money they put in.”

Ald. Wilson argued that Mayor Hagerty’s argument made sense but said long-term leases tend to do the same thing. Ald. Wynne pointed out a successful case – Chiaravalle Montessori at 425 Dempster St., which was formerly a public school building.

For many years, the City, as owner of the property, had leased the building to the school for a nominal amount. The school, meanwhile, spent $2 million in improvements to the property, she said.

Ultimately the City sold the building along with a portion of the land to the school, she said.

Aldermen Eleanor Revelle, in whose 7th Ward Harley Clarke is located, referred aldermen to last fall’s referendum, which voters backed overwhelmingly. The referendum asked voters whether the City “should protect from demolition and preserve the landmark Harley Clarke buildings and gardens next to Lighthouse Beach, for use and access as public property…”

“So, I think that’s the message I would really like to see in the RFP,” she said.

But Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said if the City were to drop the sale option, “I don’t see much difference between this RFP and the last RFP we sent out, to which we got one respondent.”

In line with the Mayor’s comments, Ald. Fiske said, “I’ve been concerned about the amount of money that someone is going to have to put into this building, and I think we can probably control the use of it [Ald. Wilson’s concern], through a deep restriction or some legal way ensuring that the building is used in the way we intended.”

She cited an example of her own in support of that strategy – Northwestern University’s lease for many years of property at 640 Lincoln St. to Roycemore School, on land owned and leased by the university. Eventually, the University did not renew its 99-year lease with Roycemore because of a need for more space. Roycemore, meanwhile, ended up relocating to a new building at 1200 Davis St.

“I’m just struggling with the idea of  how we’re going to ask someone to put possibly $5 million, could be more, into a building which they don’t own, and could be a lease of only 25 years,” Ald. Fiske said. “This is a lot of money, this is a large property.  I can see a foundation interested in this house … and they’re not going to do that with renewing a 25-year-lease over and over again with future Councils. I think we have to give them some kind of assurance.”

Ald. Wilson, though, argued that the City would be misleading someone if they said, “Buy the property, buy the building.”

“Because we still own the land, there still is going to have to be a lease, there still are going to have be lease terms, and at some point that lease will end. So we’re going to end up negotiating kind of the same thing.”

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, also quoted from the citizen referendum about protection of the landmark buildings and gardens, “for use and access as public property, consistent with the Evanston Lakefront Master Plan … at little or no cost to the Evanston taxpayers …”

“The Ward that I represent, 83% voted in support of this,” she said, “so, for me there is an easy response to anything that conflicts with what the residents voted on. So a sale doesn’t work, but I also want to hold the residents accountable to the ‘minimal or no cost’ to Evanston taxpayers.”

For that reason, “a plan of a viable fundraising strategy is important,” Ald. Simmons said.

Taking a different tack, Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, argued that if officials are unwilling to sell the land under the buildings, the City is probably precluding itself from attracting a not-for-profit or government-entity use.

If those groups wanted the Harley Clarke buildings for use they would “want us to give them control of the land,” he said.
He said the City could always say no to such a request. But “our goal is to have the top of the funnel as wide as possible,” he said, attracting such uses.

“We should look at everything,” he argued.

Ald. Suffredin’s motion to allow sale of the ground beneath the mansion failed by a vote of 5-3.

Ald. Revelle’s amendment, which followed, proposed removing the sale of the building and offering only a long-term lease. Her motion also noted the option to add additional tour dates of the building at the discretion of the City, and stressed that public use of the building as a significant aspect.

Mayor Hagerty suggested that an addendum be added to the proposal that articulated the many uses for the building that were raised in recent community meetings sponsored by citizens groups.

Ald.  Revelle’s amendment passed 5-3. Voting in support were Ald. Wynne, Wilson, Rue Simmons, Suffredin and Revelle. Voting against were Ald. Fiske, Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.

Members of Harley Clarke citizen groups active in the movement to save the mansion applauded the Council action.

“They did the right thing,” said Darlene Cannon, “by approving a ‘no sale’ and stressing the importance of the community involved in engagement—that all of Evanston has access to the house.”

In a statement earlier in the evening, Allie Harned of Save Harley Clarke noted that sale of the building “would be in stark contrast to the overwhelming vote in November 2018 to save the building for public access. We contend that the referendum was not misleading. People knew what they were voting for, and they do not want you to sell the only public house on the lake,” she told aldermen.

Before the Council discussion, Susie Hall, the executive assistant to the City Manager, outlined some of the special features of the RFPs that officials plan to include to attract users.

They include three tours a month, which will be scheduled from June through October 2019. Meetings for interested parties to present ideas to the community are to be held on Aug. 6 and Nov. 5, 2019, she said.

The City is also creating a website, cityofevanston.org/2603sheridan, which will contain more information about the details of the RFP, tour dates, community meetings and more, Ms. Hall said.

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.