Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the original to reflect several corrections.
Members of a city committee are moving forward on a proposal for the city to award a 40-year lease to the Jens Jensen Gardens in Evanston for exclusive rights to manage the coach house and grounds surrounding the Harley Clarke mansion, at 2603 Sheridan Rd.
City Council Administration & Public Works Committee members voted 4-1 at their Jan. 23 meeting to direct staff to present a finalized lease for the Jens Jensen group to maintain those specific for those areas at the Feb. 27 meeting.
All this comes just two weeks after a long and difficult meeting of the same committee, chaired by First Ward City Council Member Clare Kelly.
At that meeting on Jan. 9, council members took no action on the proposal to amend the fundraising plans for Artists Book House’s lease, and instead voted for a mediator to negotiate a contract between Artists Book House and Jens Jensen.
What is the dispute?
Artists Book House and Jens Jensen apparently were unable to agree on what areas of the grounds were Jens Jensens’ responsibility, even though at one time, both agreed the Jens Jensen group would be a subcontractor for Artists Book House to do the gardening work. The dispute was so fraught, Artists Book House even asked the group to return its keys to the coach house in December.
When the focus of that discussion on Jan. 9 moved from Artists Book House’s request to modify the benchmarks for its lease and turned to Jens Jenson’s request for a separate lease, Artists Book House founder Audrey Niffenegger said she and her board decided to abandon the aspirational project to turn the Harley Clarke mansion into a book and literary center.
The city originally awarded the Artists Book House a 40-year lease for the mansion in May of 2021. But a number of factors, including the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic, have stymied fundraising goals.
At the same time, Jens Jensen Gardens in Evanston, which had no contract for the land, had been working for about two years to restore the gardens at the Harley Clarke mansion.
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Under the guidance of Charles Smith, retired landscaper and president of the nonprofit, volunteers have cleared out invasive species, cleaned up the council ring, planted three hemlock trees and grown native plants from seed in the greenhouse.
At the Jan. 9 meeting, Kelly had argued that the group that has been maintaining the the gardens and should be given official status for its work.
Smith said the nonprofit group has many volunteers and donors who have contributed to the nonprofit group’s work “and the plants and trees we planted. And we think of those donors as investors and investors expect a return on their investment,” he said to committee members.
In the discussion, Fourth Ward City Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma argued that the city should be prudent about taking immediate action. He noted that it’s only been 14 days since the city’s lease with Artists Book House dematerialized.
“We still haven’t negotiated the termination of that lease,” he said. “And I am in the camp that believes we should take a minute, take a breath, and make sure we appropriately consider all of our options before we move forward.”
A memo from Deputy City Manager Dave Stoneback regarding the proposed lease between the city and Jens Jenson lists several reasons the council should not approve it, including that it was premature to enter into another lease without terminating the prevailing lease.
Among them were that a 40-year lease, the same number of years as the Artists Book House lease, would make it more difficult for the city to lease the mansion.
In an interview last week, Smith defended the request for a separate lease, saying the mansion and gardens had been treated as separate entities for years.
When the Evanston Art Center – and before that the Sigma Chi fraternity – used the mansion, he said, they paid little attention to the gardens, he said. The Garden Club of Evanston maintained the wildflower garden, and local residents Pam and Jim Elesh donated funds to refurbish the grotto.
The mansion and the gardens should remain separate, Smith said.