Evanston looks for way forward on Harley Clarke Mansion

No+Park+Sale+co-founder+Barbara+Janes+speaks+at+the+group%E2%80%99s+first+meeting+Wednesday+night.+No+Park+Sale+formed+in+opposition+to+Evanston+billionaire+Jennifer+Pritzker%E2%80%99s+proposal+to+buy+the+city-owned+Harley+Clarke+Mansion%2C+2603+Sheridan+Road.

Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

No Park Sale co-founder Barbara Janes speaks at the group’s first meeting Wednesday night. No Park Sale formed in opposition to Evanston billionaire Jennifer Pritzker’s proposal to buy the city-owned Harley Clarke Mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road.

Patrick Svitek, City Editor

Evanston aldermen rejected a controversial plan to turn the Harley Clarke Mansion into a boutique hotel over the summer, responding to vocal opposition against selling the city-owned landmark to billionaire Jennifer Pritzker.

That was the easy part.

More than two months later, City Council faces a more daunting task than a simple yes-or-no vote: plotting the lakefront property’s future while taking into account varying information about its longtime state of disrepair and a community organization that has vowed to see the process through.

“All we know so far is we have declined one particular proposal,” said Ald. Jane Grover (7th), whose ward includes the historic mansion. “In the much larger world … it’s pretty clear the opinions diverge, and there is no consensus.”

The council’s Human Services Committee was nearly unanimous Monday night in its opposition to pouring more money into the mansion, turning down the opportunity to spend $170,000 on what city manager Wally Bobkiewicz pitched as a “minimum of improvements” ranging from the fire alarm system to plumbing.

“It just seems like throwing money away to put money into a building that we know is not going to be exactly as it is now,” said Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th), who described the mansion as “severely deteriorating” while supporting the Pritzker bid in July.

Calling Bobkiewicz’s recommendation a short-term fix for a long-term problem, some aldermen suggested the funds could be put to better use by helping the Evanston Art Center find a new location. The art center has rented the mansion from the city for $1 a year since 1996, a symbolic arrangement meant to boost Evanston’s art scene.

But even the art center’s fate is up in the air. Its board was expected to meet Thursday night to discuss several issues, including a two-year-old question: Should it ditch the mansion or stay put, potentially facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair costs without city assistance?

In unscheduled remarks Monday night at No Park Sale’s first meeting, art center executive director Norah Diedrich admitted her 1,700-member organization has struggled to secure new digs, despite a $75,000 review of possible locations, a test fit, two appraisals and an unsuccessful bid for a Central Street building.

“We worked very, very hard to find another facility, but we may have failed, and our time may be up,” she told the group, which originally formed in opposition to the Pritzker proposal. “We may have to put a lot of money into that building to make it code compliant, and if we do do that, I think it would be foolish of us to leave.”

No Park Sale co-founder Barbara Janes made it clear Wednesday night that her group, the driving force behind the council’s decision to turn down Pritzker’s proposal, will not accept any plan that cuts off public access to the park and beach near the mansion.

“We have one lakefront,” she told more than 80 people at the meeting. “It’s for everyone.”

The group received a pep talk Wednesday night by Roula Alakiotou, restoration architect for the Berger Mansion in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.

“The persistence will have to be there until you succeed,” she said.

“Bring Jan Schakowsky into a meeting and say, ‘Deliver,’” Alakiotou added, referring to the Evanston Democrat in the House of Representatives.

The No Park Sale meeting, which was held two floors above the council chambers, offered a revealing glimpse at the wide range of residents’ prescriptions for the mansion’s future. Although the meeting was called to brainstorm future purposes of the mansion, a half-hour discussion after Alakiotou’s address veered back to persistent questions about how much it would cost to repair the building and who should pay for it.

Elliott Dudnik, an architect who has worked on several projects at the mansion, warned attendees about reading too much into estimated costs to repair it. Bobkiewicz’s price tag comes after a 2012 report pinned a similar revamp at more than $400,000. Bobkiewicz told the committee that Pritzker’s bid took into account an even more expensive endeavor.

“Be aware you’re not always reading apples and apples,” Dudnik said.

Evanston resident Tom O’Brien suggested tearing the mansion down if the city and art center cannot come to an agreement about its future.

“Neither one has shown a financial commitment to maintaining the building,” he said.

Skokie resident Arlene Rakoncay almost immediately took issue with O’Brien’s recommendation.

“The art center is known throughout the country, and the city should absolutely take care of all the expenses,” she said.

On Monday night, Bobkiewicz cautioned the committee about pointing fingers as it considers the mansion’s future.

“This issue has not gone away, and it remains one that we need to address,” Bobkiewicz said. “My hope is that we won’t spend a lot of time documenting very precisely who did what to whom or who didn’t do what to whom … but instead focus on moving forward and making sure everyone’s safe.”

No Park Sale has scheduled a second meeting Oct. 23 in Room 2404 of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

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Twitter: @PatrickSvitek