City officials are moving forward on negotiating the terms of a 40-year lease with the Jens Jensen Gardens of Evanston for maintaining the coach house and grounds around the Harley Clarke mansion, in accord with a motion passed by a city committee last month.

Image of Harley Clarke mansion on Sheridan Road from City of Evanston website.

Council members are not expected to make any final commitments on the issue until they learn more about new proposals they are getting from groups interested in leasing the mansion’s main house at 2603 Sheridan Rd.

The lakefront house had been vacant for years until Artists Book House was picked to occupy the property in May 2021.

At the Feb. 13 city council meeting, Council Member Eleanor Revelle, in whose Seventh Ward Harley Clarke is located, reported that four groups have expressed interest in use of the mansion, even though the city has not yet formally called for request for proposals.

Revelle said three of the groups had submitted proposals in the last public process that led to Artists Book House’s selection: Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, Evanston Conservancy and ONECommunity Museum. She noted that Evanston Community Lake House & Gardens and Evanston Conservancy were also in favor the city moving forward in a lease with Jens Jensen Gardens.

A fourth group, Center for Climate Action, has also stepped forward with a proposal that would involve a public-private partnership between the city and Northwestern University’s Institute for Sustainability and Energy.

Given the new interest, Revelle said, “I would like to see us have a conversation about the whole property and not move forward yet with a bifurcated proposal for a separate lease with Jens Jensen.”

Along those lines, she suggested the council give the groups roughly two months to work together and come up with a more formal proposal for the council to consider.

Timing conflict

On Jan. 23, members of the City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee voted 4-1 to direct staff to negotiate a separate lease between the city and Jens Jensen Gardens, who was represented at the meeting by its president, Charles Smith.

The action came a little more than 10 days after the Artists Book House, which had been awarded a 40-year lease, informed the city it would be leaving Harley Clarke.

Artists Book House President Audrey Niffenegger: “If our benchmarks will be repeatedly used as a blunt instrument to get us to do things that seem very ill-advised then it would be folly for us to start investing real money in the property.” Credit: Bob Seidenberg

(In an interview with the RoundTable, best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger, founder of the Artists Book House, faulted the city for failing to act on her group’s request for less burdensome fundraising benchmarks and instead tying the next steps with the property to giving official contractual status to Jens Jensen, and Smith, long caretaker of the property.)

First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly said during the Feb. 13 council meeting that the city should move forward with the proposed lease with Jens Jensen Gardens, something that had been agreed and voted upon in the Jan. 23 meeting, which Kelly had chaired. “So I think that needs to go forward,” she said.

But other council members pointed to the new development – four groups showing interest  in the mansion – as a need to shift focus.

Council member Clare Kelly at the Jan. 23 meeting: “I think that it’s understood from the beginning that the coach house should be managed by the Jens Jensen Gardens, as well as the landscaping.”

Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma said he was sympathetic to Revelle’s position about not wanting to bifurcate, “because right now we’re talking about one piece of pizza [the Jens Jensen proposal]. I would rather try to sell a whole pizza than one that has one piece already taken out of it. We’ve got one piece and that’s great.

“So I’m wondering if the middle road here is to perhaps negotiate a lease with the Jens Jensen group, but hold off signing that until we’ve gone through another process of hearing proposals from folks who want the entire property or want the building.”

Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid returned to the pizza analogy and agreed that it’s easier to sell an intact pizza. But he thought it would be better if the pizza was normal sized, rather than “the world’s biggest pizza,” referring to the mansion, coach house and grounds as a whole.

Revelle expressed unease with getting too stuck on the direction from the Administration & Public Works Committee.

“I think the council as a whole are the stewards for the Harley Clarke property,” she said.

Corporation Counsel weighs in

In a report to the council, Nicholas Cummings, the city’s Corporation Counsel, suggested that the council needs to give more direction on the Jensen lease.

Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings at Feb. 13 City Council meeting Credit: Bob Seidenberg

“It’s very rare that that the tenant dictates the terms of the lease,” he told council members. “The owner tends to dictate the terms of the lease.”

In a memo to the council, Cummings brought up a number of questions on the lease, including:

  • “If the property is bifurcated and the green space is leased to Jens Jensen, how does the City wish for Jens Jensen to use the property?
  • “In the most recent lease proposed by Jens Jensen, they seek to lease the property from the City for $1 annually while allowing Jens Jensen to charge other groups to use the property. … “
  • Additionally, the proposed lease called for Jens Jensen to have exclusive use of the property. Staff needs direction on how the city council wants the property to be used.
  • “Should the Jens Jensen lease include fundraising benchmark goals, fundraising reporting requirements, project improvement design, and construction requirements similar to the ABH lease?”
Jens Jensen designed the council rings for relaxed socialization. The council ring at the Clarke mansion is used but upkeep has been neglected.

In the memo, Cummings also asked whether the city wishes to put out another request for proposal for the entire property.

Cummings noted that “the expectation was that ABH [Artists Book House] would partner with another entity to care for the greenspace. Indeed, their proposal suggested they would partner with another entity to maintain and rehabilitate the green space. With that said, the City Council should also consider the impact bifurcating the property would have on the ability to utilize the mansion.”

Jens Jensen Gardens president responds

Jens Jensen Gardens President Smith, at both the meetings, responded forcefully to some of Cummings’ concerns and spoke to his long-time involvement.

“I’ve been involved in those grounds and on behalf of the city for 30 years actually, but intensively for about the last four or five years,” he told council members. “So I’ve been down there every day working with the Ecology Center, working with the greenway people, facilities, parks and recreation. I just wasn’t running around the site willy-nilly.”

Charles Smith, president of Jens Jensen Gardens, sits on a rock installed by landscape architect Jens Jensen behind the Harley Clarke mansion last October.. Credit: Richard Cahan

In addition, he said, the work “was always a matter of coordination, always a matter of getting permission from city staff and working with city staff in everything I did.” The group’s objective was to restore the gardens, the stonework, the grotto and the landscaping in accordance with the plans and the vision of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen.

At the Feb. 13 meeting, Smith also addressed the concern of “exclusive lease” raised in Cummings’ memo, noting that it was standard legal term in such documents and that use of the site really fell to city code dealing with community centers and open space.

He said the intention here “is to operate this as a public park,” not unlike other lakefront property.

“We’ve done all this stuff,” he told council members. “So we’re just not like some fly-by-night groups jumping in, trying to take something from the city. We’re trying to provide something that’s high quality and funded by philanthropy.”

The item was set for discussion and no final action was taken. Reid suggested the council begin the formal request for proposal process for the mansion, which would allow any interested groups to submit their proposals.

Meanwhile, Cummings will continue negotiations on a lease with Jens Jensen and Smith, addressing the concerns that were raised.

Summing up discussion, Mayor Daniel Biss observed that “there’s clearly a diversity of views here. This is a place that gets a lot more kind of public interest than almost any other. My own view is we need to act in such a way as to keep our options as open as possible that we shouldn’t take decisions now that will close doors.

“Because again, we’re in a tricky situation. And we want to leave as many options available to us as we try to reach a favorable resolution for the whole community.”

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. The use of “bifurcate” as in “bifurcate the property” is inappropriate. Using “divide” or “separate” is appropriate and conforms to the admonition “keep it simple”. “Bifurcate” means to divide into two forks, and there’s nothing two-forked about the property or property proposals at 2603 Sheridan. “Bifurcate” is most often used in engineering or medicine, not in this context. If a proposed lease for the gardens turn end up describing a separate entity, I predict wiggly lines may be involved instead, perhaps even in a *circle around* the house. Definitely not forks.

  2. Early on, after then Governor Rauner canceled state’s environmental study the I had suggested several times that you should have reached out to the newly funded..100 million..Buffington Institute for Global Affairs as they were looking for a physical space for this newly created and funded institute.

  3. The City should have learned the lesson that whoever get the lease, full renovation needs to be fully funded up front before a lease is signed.

    1. Most likely not possible, but a valued line of credit would be the customary procedure with a construction/payment as a part of the occupancy/use plans.

  4. Fingers crossed that a solid long term tenant is secured and the building can be preserved and updated. It’s a part of Evanston’s history and character. Although it’s become a burden, preserving it will be worth the trouble in the long run. And restoration of the exterior spaces is also a laudable goal. To steal a phrase from President Biden, let’s finish the job!

    1. Yes..with adequate considerations of all proposals and financial requirements having been met..let’s get it done!