City council opens conversation about future of Harley Clarke Mansion, asks for request for proposal draft


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The Harley Clarke Mansion. Aldermen discussed the future of the mansion at City Council on Monday

Catherine Henderson, City Editor

Aldermen voted 5-4 to have city staff prepare a draft to solicit proposals for the Harley Clarke mansion at City Council on Monday. The period for proposals would be open for nine months to nonprofit, for-profit and foundation organizations interested in investing in the long-discussed mansion and collaborating with community members throughout the process.

In July 2018, aldermen narrowly voted to begin steps toward demolishing the mansion so a group by the name of Evanston Lighthouse Dunes could turn the land into a park, but in November, 80 percent of Evanston residents voted in an advisory referendum to oppose the demolition of Harley Clarke. On Monday, aldermen discussed what to do with the mansion for the first time in the council chambers since they reversed their original decision in December 2018.

Staff would present their request to council again on April 15. Ald. Ann Rainey (8th), Ald. Judy Fiske (1st), Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) and Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) voted against the motion.

Community members and aldermen expressed their hopes and concerns for the future of the Harley Clarke mansion, four months after residents voted overwhelmingly to save the mansion from demolition.

Mayor Steve Hagerty recommended opening up a period for new proposals, giving possible investors ample time to assess the property, establishing a community panel and presenting ideas to City Council.

“Our job is to reset the table in a smart and thoughtful manner that ultimately resolves this issue,” Hagerty said.

The Harley Clarke mansion has remained vacant since the Evanston Art Center left the building in 2015. It is the only publicly-owned building on Lake Michigan in the city. Hagerty highlighted four past proposals that have failed because of problems ranging from insufficient funds to a lack of community support.

Hagerty said he’s heard from residents that they want the mansion to be preserved with public access without using tax dollars. Still, Hagerty said it would be difficult to find someone to invest in the mansion if they don’t own the building.

Public commenters emphasized the need for engaging community members in any proposals for Harley Clarke and expressed fear about privatizing the mansion.

During public comment, Evanston resident Albert Gibbs voiced support for the mansion on behalf of the Evanston/North Shore branch of the NAACP, and specifically highlighted the importance of ensuring “African American and other minorities easy access and regular use” of the lakefront property.

“The property and home have unlimited potential for serving as a public community center,” Gibbs said. “While the city will receive any number of proposals for how the mansion should be utilized, we want to be ensured that its future programs and events will keep in mind the African American community as well as… other minority communities in our town.”

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th), who proposed the motion, emphasized the importance of including community members in the conversation. He said it is important to get lots of ideas and consider the math of restoring the mansion without spending taxpayer money.

“I want to give as broad a range of opportunities to get ideas out there for the property,” Wilson said. “The community and everybody has an opportunity to see what these things look like.”

Fiske, who voted against the proposal, said City Council does not have enough information about the cost of any proposal to move forward with the motion.

Fiske also emphasized the cost of renovating the mansion as a reason to slow down the proposal process. Whether residents and city officials decide to restore the mansion themselves, sell it to an organization or even try to make it a state park, all of these options would come at a price, Fiske said.

“We need to know that whoever is coming in has the resources to run and maintain and take care of the building in a financially responsible way,” Fiske said. “I think we need more information before we start again putting obstacles in our way of fully understanding who is out there who fully can do this work.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the result of the Council vote on Monday. Council voted to ask city staff to draft a request for proposal to present to the Council at another meeting in April. It also incorrectly characterized the November vote regarding Harley Clarke. Council voted to take steps toward demolishing the mansion. The Daily regrets the errors.

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