A city council committee recommended Monday, Jan. 9, that a mediator be called in to resolve a split between groups that have been active in the renovation of the Harley Clarke Mansion.

Harley Clarke mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road

The ongoing dispute has stalled progress on the lakefront project as the two nonprofits were originally asked by the city to draw up the leases in October. One for the Artists Book House, a nonprofit project that was originally awarded a 40-year lease for project but has not hit its fundraising and renovation goals, and Jens Jensen Gardens, a nonprofit which has been restoring the gardens around the mansion.

But at Monday’s meeting of the City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee, Evanston Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings told the committee, “I think it should be taken to a neutral party. The city’s involvement here has not been effective.”

Editor’s note: The RoundTable has more Evanston City Council Jan. 9 coverage on city seeking to renegotiate the District 65 MOU, slow down District 65 campus decisions, Fifth Ward school survey results and the withdrawal of the bag tax.

Eventually, the committee voted in favor of the city retaining a mediator to work with the two parties but not without a lengthy discussion about exactly what the mediator would and would not do.

Charles Smith, president of Jens Jensen Gardens, shows a hemlock tree that he planted recently near the Harley Clark House in October, 2022. Credit: Richard Cahan

Under the proposal, the Corporation Counsel will hire a mediator, who will attempt to reach agreement via a legal document on what renovation responsibilities fall to which organization when it comes to the property at 2603 Sheridan Rd. To be delegated are the house, the grounds, a possible terrance and the grotto — something that was not included in the original lease.

But the mediator should also pay particular attention to the area east of the mansion — a “sticking point,” in the dispute, said Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward. Specifically, he said, “what point of the property does Artists Book House have, what part of the property does Jensen have.’”

The discussion was one of the night’s main issues,  as the Council resumed business after being off nearly a month.

Members of a former City Council voted in February 2021 to enter negotiations with Artists Book House entered a long term lease with the city in May 2021 renovate the Harley Clarke Mansion to be converted into a Book and Paper Arts Center devoted “to all things bookish.”

Audrey Niffenegger, the best selling author of The Time Travelers Wife, is the founder of the organization, whose proposal won out over three others. Since winning the lease, the group has been working with the Jens Jensen Gardens in Evanston on restoration and maintenance of the garden and grounds around the Harley Clarke complex.

Different missions

Niffenegger pointed out that her group wanted to partner with a gardening group, envisioning that the coach house on the property would be inhabited by the gardening group “and that the gardens would be renovated by this group.

“But we did not specify who that group might be. It’s not specified in our lease; nor is it specified in our proposal,” she told Committee members.

Audrey Niffenegger at the Harley Clarke mansion.

Nevertheless, she said Artists Book House sought a sublease with Jens Jensen for eight months, but “couldn’t get there.” She said she also offered Charles Smith, the president of Jens Jensen a spot on the Artists Book House board, but was turned down.

She said she made three other efforts to enter into an agreement with the group, and it has not worked out.

“We have a different group that we’re now trying to work with,” she said.

But Smith, who spoke after Niffenegger, said the lease that was offered was changed in form from a “lease to a license, then from a license to a non-exclusive lease” that presented difficulties and “kind of ended that  process.”

Most recently, he said the group stepped back from releasing all of the grounds so Jens Jensen Gardens could enter into a direct lease with the city and that was changed to half the grounds and none of the grounds.

Smith said he has had a good relationship with Niffenegger and other members of the Book House group over the years.

“There’s no animosity. I think what’s at stake here is there are lot of artists and book people here, there are a lot of garden and habitat people and I think two groups have very different missions.”

He continued: “I can’t speak of the Book House mission, but the Jens Jensen mission is to create a public park environment, a park for the city of Evanston. We have the expertise, we have the support, we have the commitment and we should have  lease to allow us to proceed with that.”

Mediating the job of the mediator

During discussion of the issue, committee members spent considerable time discussing what directions the staff should give a mediator.

Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, chairing the meeting, argued the mediator should clearly understand that the Jen Jensen’s Gardens has the coach house and the gardens and that the mediation will involve establishing the perimeter and the terrace. But, Kelly said, the mediator should understand that this is the committee’s intention.

But Council Members Krissie Harris, 2nd Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, were among those who argued for a more open ended approach. 

“There’s no need for mediation if we’re telling them what the space is,” Harris said. “The mediation is specifically to figure that out, and that the mediation will not involve where the city falls. It will help the two parties figure that out.”

While Reid said that if the parameters of who gets what were drawn by the committee, “then we are just paying for therapy, not mediation.”

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, proposed and ammended several motions along those lines.

But Kelly argued that the city’s message should be explicit about Jen Jensen’s contributions. “This is a community organization, people from all over Evanston who are experts in the restoration of Jen Jensen’s gardens. We all want to see them continue. That is what we are here to say and to direct staff to do, not to just leave it out there and them fight over it.”

In the end, as the discussion became circular and ran more than an hour into the city council’s scheduled meeting, the committee voted to pursue mediation without limitations. Yet, also voted in favor of a carefully worded statement to serve as a guide for the mediator as to “the will” of the committee on the two nonprofits roles.

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.

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  1. This is what happens when two we’ll intentioned but penniless groups are given authority over a public resource. Too bad the city didn’t sell this albatross to Col. Pritzker. It would actually be producing tax revenue by now. It’s only a matter of time before Artists Book House says they can’t raise the money for the renovations.

    1. Col Pritzker’s proposal involved building a large addition to the north side of the building which would have blocked public access to the beach. The addition was unsightly and would have destroyed the aesthetic and appearance of the mansion. Pritzker’s proposal was not a viable solution.