Paper-making at Artists Book House Rendering from Artists Book House proposal

Author Audrey Niffenegger’s Artists Book House has won out over three other proposals as the City’s choice for reuse of the City’s lakefront Harley Clarke mansion.

Evanston City Council members voted 7-1 Monday night to negotiate exclusively with Ms. Niffenegger’s group on a long-term lease, moving forward on an issue which has been a point of community debate for nearly a decade.

The ABH Concept

The Artists Book House plan calls for converting the mansion into a place to promote the literary and book arts. The group plans to use Harley Clarke as a place to teach classes for adults and children; to run a gallery, library and bookshop.

In the project, Ms. Niffenegger, author of the best-selling novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and an Evanston Township High School graduate, is hoping to replicate some of her work at the Center for Book and Paper Arts formerly housed at Columbia College which was considered a leader in the literary arts field before its closing in 2019.

The March 8 vote to select the Artists Book House plan came after an analysis came back from staff rating it the highest of four proposals.

Staff Ratings of All Four Proposals

Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, The Evanston Conservancy, and ONECommunity Museum were the other groups submitting proposals in response to an Request for Proposal the City sent out in May 2019, soliciting interest in the project.

Staff assigned a 1-to-5 grade for the criteria used to evaluate the proposals. The criteria included the qualifications and expertise of the applicants; their financial capability to execute the project; the benefits of the proposed use of the property; and also the commitment of the applicants to meeting the City’s minority hiring goals.

The Book House proposal received a 82.57 weighted grade. The Evanston Conservancy, built around a conservation theme, and including a nature-based preschool, co-working and conference spaces, received a 74.37; Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, which sought to create a community gathering place, a venue for classes, workshops and some large events, received a 44.27. ONE Community Museum, which sought to create a free museum focused on sustainability, received a 38.72.

Low Neighborhood Impact

In Council discussion, several aldermen spoke of another criterion of importance in their decision: the lesser impact the Book House use would have on the surrounding area, which includes Lighthouse Beach and the surrounding park.

Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to the heavier use of City parks in general during the pandemic.

On the Harley Clarke reuse, she said the fact that the Artists Book House proposal, of all the proposals, “can co-exist with the beach and park the best, and will have the fewest number of events, is something that is really significant to me.”

“I have always been concerned about weddings and conferences causing congestion there,” she said. “And I believe that the fact that the Book House will not have so many events is really critical to my analysis of this, as I said, [from all the other] wonderful proposals.”

Other aldermen, including Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, in whose Seventh Ward the site is located, expressed similar views.

Ald. Fiske drew on her experience with The Woman’s Club of Evanston, located in the First Ward and that group’s efforts to make contributions to the community.

“And that is very dependent on getting as many as many meetings and as many events in there as possible,” she said. “I just don’t think that that is something that is consistent with what we do with Harley Clarke.”

She said also working in favor of the Artists Book House “is this is a totally new thing for us. This is going to attract, I think, a lot of interest into Evanston.”

Ald. Revelle touched briefly on some of the strengths of the other plans. The Evanston Conservancy proposal, which would draw on the contributions the tenants in the project were going to offer, was “really a wonderful package,” she said. “But I do fear that the impact of the proposed uses, particularly the big number of special events that were going to be scheduled to be able to make their business plan work would have overwhelmed the property,” she said. 

Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road

She spoke similarly about Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens. “I appreciate the really extensive outreach that they undertook to talk with people from all parts of the country. … I do think the impact of their overall proposal is, once again, too great for the Harley Clark property,” she said.

“The business plan relies heavily on a number of a good number of income-producing special events and that I just think that’s too much for the property,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, representatives from some of the groups that had submitted proposals along with Artists Book House raised questions about the process.

Public Comment

Several speakers questioned why Council members with only a short time in their terms were making the decision rather than the new Council which will be elected next month.

Richard Murray, President of Evanston Conservatory, said he did not understand how the scores were developed, “whether there was other information we’re not seeing that was involved.

“I feel like I’m missing something,” he told Council members. “So my question is, for example, our plan needs one and a half million dollars of fundraising, and I believe Lake House has the same level,  one and a half million, and I’m pretty sure we both did this to make them as practical realistic feasible as possible. Yet the Book House plan needs to fundraise as much as $12 million.”

John Kennedy, one of the board members of Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens, told Council members, “To be honest, we were stunned at the scores received from staff. For example, receiving a score of two for community benefit when our entire proposal was not only sourced by the community through public meetings, but it’s focused on the Evanston community.”

He also pointed to the low score the group received for financial capability. “Yet we had arrange for a one and a half million dollar loan sufficient for phase one renovations right out of the chute,” he said. “We detailed a sustainable business plan that could support our community-focused programs and maintain the building, as well as our ability to raise funds over the long term …”

Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin cast the lone “no” vote, not from opposition to the plan, he said, but with the staff analysis having come out only a few days before the March 8 meeting. He said he thought it would be better to push the vote ahead to the Council’s March 22 meeting, giving the public more time to respond and not “taint” the process.

Bob Seidenberg

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.