After two years spent soliciting proposals for a new use for the lakefront Harley Clarke mansion, Evanston aldermen voted 6-3 Monday night to dismiss the only offer they had received.

A view of the east face of the Harley Clarke mansion.

After two years spent soliciting proposals for a new use for the lakefront Harley Clarke mansion, Evanston aldermen voted 6-3 Monday night to dismiss the only offer they had received.

The plan from billionaire Col. James N. Pritzker to rehabilitate and expand the mansion into a 57-room boutique hotel was turned down without ever having been publicly presented — although aldermen had held three executive session meetings to review the proposal.

Those secret meetings inflamed opponents of the sale, who turned out in what may have been record numbers for a City Council meeting Monday night to oppose it.

Before any of the opponents could speak, Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, moved to reject the proposal, saying it was not what he was looking for.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, quickly seconded the motion.

The three aldermen who wanted to consider Pritzker’s plan argued that the city can’t afford to maintain the building. Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, suggested it could cost $10 million to repair.

She also lashed out at opponents, who she said had knowingly misrepresented the project — saying it involved selling off the beach.

Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, were the others who sided with Burrus.

But Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said the opponents presented “an amazing show of support for parkland.”

Fiske said the City Council needs to look at its policy of not disclosing responses to requests for proposals. “It would have helped the dialogue,” she said, if more had been disclosed.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she’d rather tear down the building than have it commercialized.

The vote came almost exactly two years since City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz proposed that aldermen consider selling or finding new uses for three of the city’s public facilities as it coped with ongoing budget shortfalls.

Aldermen immediately rejected making any changes at one — the Chandler-Newberger Recreation Center.

But they agreed to explore new options for the other two — the Noyes Cultural Arts Center and the Harley Clark mansion.

In addition to rejected the mansion plan Monday night, the aldermen also voted to table a proposal from the Piven Theatre Workshop to renovate and expand its space at Noyes.

That proposal had been attacked as a givaway to Piven that would displace other arts groups from the center.

The aldermen also approved a separate motion to look for new uses for the mansion that wouldn’t involve selling parkland. But since that was also within the scope of the request for proposals issued last year, it was unclear what the prospects might be for that idea now.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Disappointed by Braithwaite and Wilson

    When Burrus, Rainey, and Holmes are on one side…..and Wynne and Fiske are on the other….there really can be no doubt about which side is correct.

    I can understand why Tendam  and Grover – who have many NIMBYs in their wards – had to vote this way, but I am disappointed by Braithwaite and Wilson.

  2. City council: You got this one right

    I have no interest in the personalities involved but I do care about our natural resources. I feel that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure we preserve public lands for future generations and not trade that legacy for profit. Thank you Evanston City Council. You got this one right.

  3. Disappointed by elected officials

    It is extremely disappointing that this could not be worked out as a win-win for the developer and the community!

    The city has a site and building that they do a poor job of providing upkeep for and the community is always complaining about the percentage of property that is tax exempt due to ownerhsip by the City, Northwestern, hsopitals, school district, and other non-profits.

    This was a wonderful opportunity to turn this problem into an asset for all – a viable commercial enterprise that would generate tax revenue for the City and Schools, an undoubtedly attractive amenity for all to see and potentially to use (granted for a cost but that would be an individual decision), and maintenance of a park with access to a public beach.

    The developer may have been paying a seemingly small price for the property but was willing to make a tremendous investment in the community – have any of the detractors of the price done any calculations to see what rate the rooms would have to be and just how long it would take for the developer to turn a profit on this endeavor?

    Surely this could have worked out for all! One day the citizens of Evanston are going to wake up and find that their community is not nearly as attractive as they think it is as the City will be bankrupted by pension costs and not have amenities that other communities have and the supposed assets we have crumbling around us.

    There are those who will, and do, make the argument that we have all our beaches but Wilmette has beaches and a pool – why can't we? Then there is the upkeep of community facilities that is not as good as it could or should be – the Civic Center, recreation buildings, parks, replacement of the city's beloved trees as they die off from one pest or disease or another, etc.

    So, I guess we will maintain ownership of buildings which are not all that well utilized by the community, but let them crumble around us…

  4. Ideas for Harley Clarke

    Ideas for Harley-Clarke:

    1. Solicit a movie studio to film  "The Money Pit II, III, IV, V…." there. 

    2. Leave it alone. The place will fall down on its own over the next few years.

    3. Raffle off  "Save Our Parks" floats from the July 4 parade.

    4. Get the Harley Clarke supporters  to use their organizational skills to fundraise. Can you sell yard signs? Bake sales? Place fund rasing jars around town? You like to organize. Save YOUR Mansion.

    5. Ask Alderman Fiske for the list of "many" people she claims are willing to donate to save the Harley Clarke mansion. Your list,  Alderman?

  5. Don’t complain when taxes rise

    Why is this city so opposed to business but then complain that taxes are raised.

  6. An appropriate decision

    While the public thinks this issue had two sides (approve or reject), the reality is that the City Council took a third route that will prove to be the most beneficial and prudent.  The decision to reject the only proposal from the RFP process was more an acknowledgement that the RFP process was ineffective.  The offer was  $1M to buy the building and land.  That was it.  There would have been no guarantee to save the building, add on the building or improve the beach facilities.   So let's forget all that conjecture.  Good for the City Council to realize that and to hit the re-start button.  Alderman Grover was absolutely right when she insisted the process must be re-started and involve the City residents since there are many community members who have plenty of experience with this type of issue/opportunity.

    The City Council made the correct decision.  Whether a new RFP process or some other due diligence vehicle is employed, it will yield far better opportunities than a simple sale of $1M.

    Well done City Council.

  7. Thank you, City Council

    Thank you City Council for realizing that our lakefront is a precious resource for everyone in this city and should not be sold to private bidders. 

  8. Congratulations

    Congratulations to the six members of the Evanston City Council for placing a higher value on publicly owned lakefront land over specious hotel development.

    Richard Phillips

  9. It’s A Shame

    It's a shame that such unique win- win-win proposition failed. The City could have turned a money taking liability into a revenue producing asset, the building could have been restored to the grandeur it deserves by an award winning preservationist. Yet, it fails because a small group of noisy Evanston citizens can't share 3 acres of lakefront.

    I laugh when I read the hand wringing over private use of lakefront property. Have you seen the size of new homes going up on the lake in North Evanston on the shore? So, a private citizen can "buy" three acres of land for personal use, but a tasteful, revenue producing business cannot? May I come up and put my firepit in the backyard of some of these new homes and enjoy the lake? Actually, I don't need to. My family and I enjoy wonderful beaches In Evanston from South Blvd. to Clark Street many summer weekends. Other than July 4, we have never had a problem with space availability or access. I've never even been to Lighthouse Beach. But those of you who only go there, know that you have many options.

    To the idea that a high end botique hotel  is "specious." It would have been steps from Northwestern University, where nearly 9,000 students on its Evanston campus have parents, friends and relatives visit; some several times a year. It would have provided badly needed banquet space for weddings and other celebrations. It would have employed people, bought local services and paid taxes. It was a grand idea.

    I thought this idea was such a "no brainer yes" that I did not contact my alderman, who voted in opposition, before yesterday. But I have now. And, the silent majority of Evanstonians who supported this productive idea have learned something from its opposition. We can make calls, too. We can make yard signs, too. We can print fliers, too. We can post Facebook pages, too. We can pack meetings, too. Thanks for the lessons.

    1. Where’s the thumbs up button when you need it?

      My guess is most of the people with signs in their yards believed the city was selling the beach.

  10. This is why evanston is broke

    This deal would have given the city tens of millions of dollars in business and provided dozens of permanent full time jobs.  That money will now go elsewhere.  

  11. “Never mind.”

    I see several people commenting on this article were in support of the bargain-basement sale of the mansion to Pritzker and his hotel-developer cronies. $1.2 million for a vintage mansion. True, it's a fixer-upper, but in this area and this real estate market?

    I do not think the city of Evanston had only two choices. It wasn't either/or. There is a third option. And I suspect a fourth. Maybe even a fifth. Transparency in communication and action is not an option for the mayor, aldermen, and city of Evanston–it is a serious responsibility. Not only to the present population of Evanston, but also to our children, and all those who will enjoy the lakefront for many years to come.

    Oh. Next time the city of Evanston wants to sell lakefront property at fire-sale prices, let me know. I'll be first in line.

  12. Lease, don’t sell

    Why is/was there no mention or discussion of Evanston leasing the land (10, 20, 30 … yrs?) and creating some kind of an income stream for the community while retaining ownership (and control) of the entire property? 

    If the investment (new construction, rehab of the HC mansion, etc.) and resulting profit was a good idea for Col. Pritzker at a cost of 1.2 mil (a transparently bargain price – lease should be more) spread that cost over a lease period with the results the same:  considerable income for Col. Pritzker while committing to " more skin in the game" which translates to  "good for Evanston and the north shore".

    The land and shared waterfront is where the true value lies for this and any forthcoming project, not the Harley Clarke mansion itself (albeit, a worthy consideration).

    1. Why would anyone lease a decaying building?

      The Arts Center has been leasing … for $1 a year and spending $100,000 in maintenance.  You think you are going to find someone to lease it for MORE money and put enough money into the building to keep it from falling down?

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