Evanston aldermen Monday night rejected a proposal to lease the city-owned lakefront Harley Clarke mansion to a non-profit group that sought to operate an environmental education center there.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said the proposed lease with Evanston Lake House & Gardens could force the city to spend millions of dollars to rebuild the structure if it were damaged by a fire or other disaster.

“When the city’s only getting $1 in rent for the building,” Wilson declared, “that’s not acceptable.”

Wilson said he was initially excited about ELHG’s proposal, which, he said, predicted that the group would raise $4.8 million in two years and a total of $6 million by its third year.

But the lease proposes far less fundraising over a much longer period of time — a total of $5 million over 10 years.

Tom Hodgman.

The lakehouse group had chosen to suspend active fundraising during the time it was negotiating the lease with the city, after earlier bringing in roughly $100,000 — mostly in pledges rather than cash.

Although the group’s president, Tom Hodgman, waved envelopes he said contained two checks with an additional $18,000 in contributions as he spoke to aldermen, he failed to inspire much confidence among them.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she doubted that even the lesser fundraising goals required by the lease could actually be met. And she said the group’s unwillingness to disclose its donor list “is unacceptable.”

Melissa Wynne.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she shared the concerns about fundraising and the potential casualty loss liability for the city.

“I want to see the project succeed,” Wynne said, “but I can’t support the lease as currently proposed.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, who had shepherded the Lakehouse proposal through a series of committee meetings, said the ELHG plan matched what was called for in the city’s 2008 Lakefront Plan. She said she was initially skeptical of the group’s proposal, but came to enthusiastically endorse it.

She and Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, cast the only votes in favor of the proposal.

The full video of the Council meeting.

That vote came after a motion to table the proposal until the Council’s April 23 meeting failed on a 4-5 vote. Wynne and Wilson joined Suffredin and Revelle in supporting that proposal, which would have potentially given additional time to rework the terms of the deal.

During public comment at the start of the meeting, 13 people spoke in favor of the lease proposal while 7 opposed it.

There was no discussion by aldermen after the vote of what might happen next with the mansion.

While it is possible that the Lakehouse proposal could be revived by a motion to reconsider Monday’s vote — presumably if the non-profit agreed to lease terms more favorable to the city — other options, including potentially the demolition of the mansion, would now appear to be open for discussion.

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Kudos to the City Council for Rejecting the Harley Clarke Lease

    Yesterday, the Evanston City Council made a difficult but correct decision to reject the lease of the Harley Clarke house on the lake to the Evanston Lake House and Gardens group.

    The lease was deficient and the citizens of Evanston were exposed to too much risk. Thanks to the City Council members who opposed the lease.

    I wonder how the City Manager and his staff allowed this lease to go forward to the City Council. The lack of due diligence is concerning. Are there other areas under the aegis of the City Manager that don’t get the same scrutiny as the Harley Clarke lease that deserve closer examination?

    Thank you Bill for the prompt and thorough reporting on this matter.

    1. Thank Goodness! All these
      Thank Goodness! All these “Save the Mansion” groups have been blowing smoke for years and It’s wonderful the Council finally saw it. Their intentions sound noble but the preservationists all possess more will than wallet. The only practical use for this white elephant is the one Col. Pritzker proposed: Get it fixed up and on the tax rolls. The city should crawl on its knees, beg forgiveness, and pay her to take the thing off the hands of the taxpayers once and for all.

      1. Exactly
        We should have done that a long time ago. Probably too late now, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Keeping ownership has many pitfalls as the current debate has pointed out.

      2. Not J.B. but never the less
        I find it odd so many Evanston voters went for J.B. but don’t think the family members have the economic or community sense to run this property better than the Council or Preservation groups. If the Preservation [or theater] groups want the Mansion or any of the other projects, let them put their money where their mouth is.

      3. Tear Down Harley Clark
        Pritzker’s proposal was never economical viable. The parking plan was terrible flawed. Because of soil conditions and location, building an underground parking structure as Pritzker wanted made no sense. Why did Northwestern build that big ugly tall parking garage at the aquatic center? Even a modicum of business acumen recognizes the weaknesses of Pritzker’s plan.

        Harley Clark is a rotting, polluted pile of bricks. It should be torn down and the land should be converted to green space for all of Evanston to enjoy.

        1. Mansion demolition
          I enthusiastically second the above proposal to open up more park space and remove an eyesore from the lakefront

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