Council moves to request Harley Clarke renovation proposals


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

City Council moved to find new proposals for the Harley Clarke Mansion on Monday.

Cole Reynolds, Assistant City Editor

City Council directed city staff to gather new proposals to renovate the Harley Clarke Mansion on Monday.

The rundown landmark’s future has been uncertain since mid January, when educational nonprofit Artists Book House pulled out of a lease agreement with the city. The organization was meant to occupy the building for 40 years. The organization hoped to turn Harley Clarke into a literary center, but ran into fundraising problems and disputes over the property.  

In a 5-3 vote, City Council approved a motion put forth by Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th), whose ward includes the mansion, that directed city staff to solicit proposals for renovation through a Request for Expression of Interest over the next four months.

The city has considered plans to either renovate or demolish the beachside property for more than a decade. The search to find a new purpose for Harley Clarke has generated significant public engagement.

[Read more about How the Harley Clarke Mansion became Evanston’s most hotly contested issue.]

Council discussed three areas in the property Monday: the mansion, the coach house and the grounds. Councilmembers disagreed on whether the city should be looking for proposals that address the property in its entirety or divide the property into slices like a “pizza.”

Ald. Devon Reid (8th) introduced a motion to pare down the REOI to address only the mansion, but his motion failed 2-7. 

One of the reasons Artists Book House cited for pulling out of the lease was disputes over the rights to the coach house, which is occupied by landscaping company Jens Jensen Gardens. 

The city is currently working to sign a separate contract with Jens Jensen. 

Preliminary talks with Jens Jensen have involved renovations to the coach house, according to Evanston’s Corporation Counsell Nicholas Cummings. He said it could be difficult to accommodate both the anticipated lease with Jens Jensen and a REOI proposal that included renovations for the coach house.

In contrast to a Request for Proposal, which the city used during its last selection process, the REOI gives applicants more flexibility in developing proposals, according to Evanston’s Preservation Planner Cade Sterling.

Some councilmembers expressed chagrin at the lengthy process of finding a new purpose for the building. Reid introduced, but failed to get a second, on a motion to reduce the REOI period to from four to three months.

Both Ald. Thomas Suffredin (6th) and Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) reiterated that facilitating a Harley Clarke renovation was not high on the council’s priorities. Suffredin urged the council to identify and vote for the most expeditious solution. Sterling briefly mentioned City Council could move to sell the building, although he noted that option would leave the city with limited leverage regarding future property development.

Even in terms of municipal building improvement, Suffredin said, renovating buildings like the police and fire headquarters or the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center is much more urgent, since those places play a more functional role in the city.

“The (civic center) building we’re in right now is literally falling apart,” Suffredin said. “How can we do this and get something done with Harley Clarke and still prioritize appropriately the actual city functions? … Because I think otherwise, it’s just a big distraction from more important things.”

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