Letter to the Editor: Demolishing Harley Clarke is a win for preservation

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Since 2015, the Harley Clarke Mansion has stood empty. The vintage building is nestled between the Grosse Point Lighthouse and Evanston’s Lighthouse Beach in the city’s far northeast corner. As city officials have contemplated what to do with the mansion and the valuable land it takes up, Evanstonians have engaged in a heated debate over the best use of the mansion. Two private-citizen groups, Evanston Lakehouse and Gardens and Save Harley Clarke, that are in favor of preserving the building have used inflammatory posts to stifle dissent around an issue that affects every Evanstonian.

But there is another perspective that demands to be heard. Considering the lack of public access to the existing structure and its continued cost to Evanston, the mansion is proving to be more of a burden than a benefit to the city. I believe the mansion should be torn down to save taxpayer dollars and to create a park that is open to the public, environmentally conscious and reflective of the land’s true potential.

As it stands, the City of Evanston has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes group that lays out a plan for Evanston Lighthouse Dunes to pay for the mansion’s demolition and the subsequent restoration of the lakefront property on which it currently sits. In multiple Evanston media sources, the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes is characterized as a small group of rich citizens who want a better view of Lake Michigan. Rather than spending millions of dollars to create a partially public space for expensive programming, Evanston Lighthouse Dunes will provide a new, publicly accessible Evanston park that will be owned by the city forever.

The city purchased the Harley Clarke Mansion and its grounds in 1965 from the Sigma Chi Fraternity’s Northwestern Chapter, and then entered a 50-year lease with the Evanston Arts Center. As the mansion fell into disrepair and the arts center moved to a new location, the City of Evanston has undertaken a lengthy consideration of the future of Harley Clarke. Commissions have been created and disbanded, reports have been published, developers have bid for access to the space, and someone has always found fault with whatever plans arose. This debate has cost Evanstonians over $45,000 in fees for Harley Clarke, while the mansion has been empty and unused. The idea that the Evanston Lighthouse Dunes plan for Harley Clarke is, as some opponents would have it, jumping the gun is preposterous when considering how long public commentary has halted action. Nearly four years is plenty of time to create proposals for the land and present them to the city — and far too long for Evanston residents to pay for an unusable “public” asset.

Although the land has long been zoned for public use, the Harley Clarke Mansion has never served the entirety of the Evanston community. While the Evanston Arts Center provided cultural enrichment to Evanston families who could afford it, the classes, camps and programs were not free and financial aid was limited. Since its purchase in 1965, the Harley Clarke Mansion has served only those with enough privilege to afford the EAC programs and get transportation to the far north side of Evanston. To argue, as the Evanstonian — the student newspaper of Evanston Township High School — editorial board recently said, that “Harley Clarke serves as an access point to the lakefront for families who historically have had minimal access to the area” ignores the lack of needs-based programming at the mansion and the acres of publicly accessible land surrounding it. This building, which is paid for by all taxpayers in Evanston, has only ever benefited those Evanstonians who live in the surrounding area. But anyone and everyone would have access to the park on the former grounds of the Harley Clarke Mansion.

On Nov. 2, all publicly minded and fiscally responsible Evanstonians should vote NO on the vaguely worded referendum that hopes to save the Harley Clarke Mansion but at an uncertain cost to its taxpayers. Demolishing the mansion is the only way to create — and at no cost to taxpayers — a truly public space on such a beautiful and historic city-owned lakefront property.

—Mollie Hartenstein, Evanston Township High School senior

Hartenstein published a similar piece in The Evanstonian in October.