Evanston panel OKs further review of new plan for Harley Clarke Mansion

Evanston+Art+Center+director+Norah+Diedrich+addresses+the+city%E2%80%99s+Human+Services+Committee+Monday+night.+The+panel+voted+to+further+review+a+new+plan+for+the+Harley+Clarke+Mansion%2C+2603+Sheridan+Road.+

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Evanston Art Center director Norah Diedrich addresses the city’s Human Services Committee Monday night. The panel voted to further review a new plan for the Harley Clarke Mansion, 2603 Sheridan Road.

Patrick Svitek, City Editor

The Evanston Human Services Committee on Monday night cautiously agreed to look more closely at a new proposal by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to move into the Harley Clarke Mansion.

The department’s interest in the lakefront property marks an unexpected turn in the city’s mission to determine the fate of the lakefront property, 2603 Sheridan Road. The Evanston Art Center, which rents the dilapidated mansion from the city for $1 a year, has signaled it wants to remain in the building and work with the city to finance various repairs.

That plan, however, hangs in the balance more than ever as the city looks to court the department, which declared its desire for the mansion in an Oct. 18 letter to city manager Wally Bobkiewicz. Diane Tecic, the department’s coastal program director, wrote to Bobkiewicz that the mansion is “ideally suited” for the department’s new Coastal Management program, which would bring offices and instructional space to the building.

“We believe that a strong partnership with the City of Evanston will improve both our organizations abilities to manage the current and future needs and provide an excellent publicly accessible for Evanston and surrounding communities,” Tecic wrote. “We look forward to continuing the dialogue.”

The committee apparently liked what it heard, though some members cautioned against adding a new piece to the Harley Clarke Mansion puzzle without keeping their constituents in the loop.

“We are in a very ambiguous situation,” Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) told his colleagues on the panel.

“Clearly we learned our lessons from the first round of this,” he added, hinting at the vocal opposition that sunk a controversial bid for the property by Evanston billionaire Jennifer Pritzker this summer.

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) called the department’s pitch “fascinating,” while Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th) deemed it a “good idea.” The committee unanimously voted to send the issue to City Council, which next meets Monday night.

Despite the panel’s agreement to pursue the department’s plan, its discussion turned into a testy back-and-forth about an issue that has plagued the city for months: the condition of the mansion. Bobkiewicz has said the building needs at least $170,000 for a “minimum of improvements” ranging from the fire alarm system to plumbing.

Citing her observations during an Oct. 26 tour with other aldermen, Burrus said the building may be a “massive liability” for the city. She added that she would not feel safe sending her children to the mansion for art classes.

Burrus’ comments earned a sharp rebuke from art center executive director Norah Diedrich, who criticized them as “absolutely unfounded and unbelievable.” She summoned the art center’s attorney to the podium to clear the air, though Burrus defended her remarks a few minutes later.

“I ask the hard questions because most people won’t,” Burrus told Diedrich.

Bobkiewicz assured the committee the mansion is not a public hazard, but it is “important to note there are issues that need to be addressed.”

Bobkiewicz said the department’s next step is likely briefing Evanston residents on “who they are, what they do.” That could take the form of a community meeting in January, he added.

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Twitter: @PatrickSvitek

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