Panelists talk real estate transfer tax, Harley Clarke demolition at forum


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The Harley Clarke Mansion in north Evanston. An advisory referendum regarding the demolition of Harley Clarke will be added to the ballot in November.

Alex Wong, Reporter

Panelists discussed the real estate transfer tax and Harley Clarke Mansion referendums at a Sunday forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Evanston.

City Council will ask voters in November whether the real estate transfer tax should increase for sales over $1.5 million and whether the Harley Clarke Mansion should be protected from demolition. Panelists, who spoke at Evanston Township High School, answered audience questions posed by the roughly 40 attendees.

Real estate transfer tax

The proposed real estate transfer tax increase has the possibility of making the city less attractive to homeowners and businesses, panelists said.

The real estate transfer tax would increase from $5 per $1,000 in sales to a rate of $7 for sales between $1.5 million and $5 million and $9 for sales over $5 million. City staff estimate the tax, which would be the first progressive real estate transfer tax in Illinois, would increase annual revenue by $850,000.

Panelist Paula Worthington, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, said if the tax is implemented, there is some evidence that shows certain sales of commercial property would disappear.

Businesses may also push the taxes’ costs onto consumers, said panelist Joseph Roth, the governmental affairs director of Illinois Realtors.

But only 34 out of 1236 of transfer sales in Evanston were above $1.5 million in 2017, said panelist Hitesh Desai, Evanston’s chief financial officer and city treasurer. Only nine of those sales were above $5 million. Unlike property taxes, Desai said, sellers would only pay the real estate transfer tax once.

Roth also worried the proposed tax would lead to further increases in following years whenever Evanston’s budget deficit widens. Desai, however, said the city doesn’t intend to increase the rate any further and emphasized the government services the increase could support.

“The city intends to use the revenue for the social services, for health programs, for public safety and buses, with the intention to continue the same level of service so that Evanston residents and businesses get quality service,” Desai said.

Harley Clarke Mansion demolition

Another panel spoke about the upcoming Harley Clarke Mansion advisory referendum.

In July, City Council voted 5-3 to demolish the historic lakefront mansion and create public park space. During the meeting, aldermen approved a demolition proposal by a group of private donors under the name Evanston Lighthouse Dunes. The group will contribute $400,000 to fund the demolition itself, the proposal said.

Since then, a number of residents have urged aldermen to reconsider demolition. An advisory referendum regarding the demolition will be added to the ballot in November.

Trish Stieglitz, a 30-year Evanston resident, and Brad White, author of Evanston’s Preservation Ordinance, argued on the panel that the mansion holds architectural and historical significance and is the last building along the lakefront that is publicly accessible. An estimate of the demolition costs, which would preserve the building’s reusable materials, has been done by private contractors and posits a cost of $450,000. Stieglitz said this estimate may still be too low.

“There are about 30 items not even accounted for on their own paperwork, that say, ‘Excluded, excluded, excluded,’ that they haven’t paid for,” Stieglitz said at the forum. “Until they have experts in there with reports, they can’t tell you how much it’s going to cost.”

Amina DiMarco, who served for 10 years on Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, said the mansion’s estimated renovation costs of $4.8 million still far exceeded the costs of demolition.

The Preservation Commission will hear the city’s Certificate of Appropriateness, which states that demolition is an appropriate action for the building, on Oct. 23. In advance of the meeting, members of Evanston’s Preservation Commission will be allowed to visit the mansion.

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