Are we Evanstonians losing our nerve?

Rejection by the Evanston City Council Monday of a plan by billionaire Hyatt heir James Pritzker to preserve the Harley Clarke mansion and expand it into a 57-room boutique hotel raises a more fundamental question about the ability of Evanston residents to accept change in their community.

Despite mounting budget woes, complicated by a statewide crisis in financing pensions for public employees, it seems that any significant privately-financed projects that would bring in additional tax revenues to the city are rejected by upstart citizens groups that are fearful of the changes that might occur.

Remember the 49-story tower that would have soared above downtown Evanston, replacing many smaller buildings that some prominent architects referred to as “ugly”?

It was shot down by an organized group, consisting substantially of owners of nearby high-rise condominiums who felt that their views of Lake Michigan might be compromised by such a structure.

And remember the marina and convention center that was proposed to be built onto lakefill east of the city’s downtown?

Not to mention the proposed wind farm that would have been built four miles offshore, virtually out of sight, that potentially would reduce the cost of electricity to Evanston residents. Some opponents suggested that some migrating birds might be sacrificed by the whirring blades.

While Evanston diddled, adjacent communities moved ahead with plans for expanding Wrigley Field in Chicago, creating an entirely new business and residential community on an abandoned naval air station in Glenview, and building a huge fashion outlet mall in Rosemont.

Even a well-intentioned plan to generate 10 Big Ideas in celebration of Evanston's 150th anniversary of its founding resulted arguably in mostly small ideas.

Of course, big ideas can be risky. One such was the creation of the Evanston/Northwestern Research Park in the 1980s, which never reached its projected potential with the recession of the early 1990s.

It paved the way, however, for a major redevelopment that brought an 18-screen cinema complex, 100,000 square feet of new restaurants and retail, a 30-unit town home development, a 23-story condominium tower, a Hilton hotel, and a 1,400-car public parking structure.

With the Pritzker plan rejected, the onus has now been put upon its opponents, led by 1st Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, to mount a capital campaign to raise donor funds that would pay for fixing up the mansion and for continuing to finance its upkeep.

Otherwise, the city’s taxpayers will be stuck with the bill for razing the building and relandscaping the lot, including a possible expansion of the Lighthouse Beach parking lot.

The Council unanimously kicked that can down the road Monday night by directing the city manager to come up with some additional ideas that are likely to further engage and enrage the city’s residents.

Now the attention turns to 6th Ward Alderman Mark Tendam, who has generated some initial excitement about a proposal for building a performing arts center in downtown Evanston.

Hopefully, the project will be short and squat so as not to interfere with anyone’s view from their condo windows.

Well, at least we got a Trader Joe’s.


Charles Bartling

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

Editors’ Picks