Thoughts on a lakefront boutique hotel


Some thoughts on the proposal for a boutique hotel in the Harley Clarke mansion.

First of all, Col. James Pritzker is the nephew of Jay Pritzker, who died in 1999 and for whom the Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park is named. His name is James. He is a colonel in the US Army Reserve and uses his rank in his name.  So do many retired military people.

Second, here are some things to think about while discussing this proposal:

Col. Pritzker has a hobby, if you’d call it that, of rescuing and renovating landmark buildings and putting them to new uses.  That seems to me the essence of adaptive reuse and preservation, and a rather excellent use of his wealth.   He has done this so far with the following buildings:

  1. Monroe Building on Michigan Ave. in Chicago (Chicago landmark by Holabird and Roche); His Tawani Enterprises restored the building and it now has up-to-date offices and is the home of the Pritzker Military Library.  It won the Richard Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award in 2012.
  2. The Emil Bach house7415 N. Sheridan Rd. in Chicago a 1915 design by Frank Lloyd Wright.  It is soon to open as a B and B. Already open is the 1919 home next door, the Cat’s Cradle B and B).
  3. The house at 300 Church St. in Evanston; (an Evanston landmark) a B and B opening this fall.

Let’s now focus on the benefits that could accrue to Evanston and the Harley Clarke property if Col. Pritzker’s plan is thoughtfully reviewed and ultimately approved.

An Evanston landmark, currently with many structural and mechanical problems will be saved and restored. Any work on the exterior will have to meet the standards in our Preservation Ordinance as reviewed by the Preservation Commission.

Construction work would create several jobs, and hiring Evanston firms/residents could be a requirement of the project.

The property would be returned to the tax rolls, and hotel tax would apply, not to mention the sales tax accruing from purchases in Evanston by hotel guests.

Jobs for operating the hotel would be created.

Some other considerations

The City does not have the funds to restore the building and to correct its many problems.   Maintenance has been deferred for years due to costs.

Some opponents have proposed tearing the building down and making a park there.  Do we so casually want to tear down an Evanston landmark? If Col. Pritzker were proposing to tear the building down, it would be an open and shut case in opposition, wouldn’t it?

Many opponents have said there should never be any commercial uses on the site, both because it is in an R-1 single family residential district, and because of need to preserve public access.  Let me quote from the City’s request for a proposal:

“In its initial request for proposals, the city said it hoped to create a “high-quality use” for the building as a “residential, office, educational, institutional, hotel or bed and breakfast site” that would retain the character of the building.

Before the city bought the property, just north of Northwestern University, it served as the headquarters for the Sigma Chi National Fraternity, so it had an institutional use prior to becoming the Art Center.

Knowing how much money will be required to restore the building and make it functional as a hotel, Col. Pritzker made a low offer for the property, just what many potential home or commercial property buyers do at the beginning of negotiations.when bidding on property that will require extensive rehab work.

He has already been quoted as saying he is open to raising his offer.  The City should demand a fair market price for the property. Remember, there is at this time no other bidder.

Several opponents have said if this is approved, what is to keep a homeowner with lakefront property from wanting to build another hotel?  To my knowledge there is no other large property such as this anywhere along the lakefront.  How could you have a small hotel on even a large city lot? 

And as I understand the initial proposal, public access to the beach would be enhanced, not eliminated, both with 35 parking spaces retained and public use of the parking garage permitted, and the path to the beach improved. Beach access should be a major element in the negotiations.

Other opponents have concerns that someone might want to put a hotel at the Dempster or Clark street beaches. This is highly unlikely, and would certainly be rejected.  First of all, the City would never sell any of the beaches. The key issue here is finding a new owner and use for a City-owned landmark that it cannot afford to repair.

Also, I think many of the opponents are concerned because they do not trust the City Council to make a good decision on this. There are many people in Evanston who feel the City Council has made some significant blunders in the past, and fear they might do so again. Please see the comments regarding hard negotiating and demanding a fair price elsewhere in this piece.

And I must add another note that concerns me: There seems to be a fair amount of wealthy-bashing going on among the opponents of this project. If it were ordinary citizens making this proposal, would the opposition be so great? Apparently the Pritzker family and its millions are very pleasing to President Obama, since James Pritzker’s cousin Penny Pritzker was chair of the Obama fund raising operation and is the current nominee to be Commerce secretary.

I think the City should carefully evaluate this proposal and bid, do some hard negotiating on all aspects, and consider approving this plan, even though it will be in direct competition to our two small hotels in Evanston.  But we are in favor of competition, especially when demand is high at many times of the year, particularly homecoming week and graduation, aren’t we? 

I say this as someone involved in the Preservation League of Evanston, as as a former two-term member of the Evanston Preservation Commission.

Editor's note: Brugliera sent a copy of her comments to Aldeman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who provided the following response.

First, I have not seen the latest plans, but my understanding is that the Pritzker project involves a 57-room "addition" to the Harley Clarke House and an underground parking garage extending from Sheridan Road to the lakefront. Public access to the beach will be affected to some extent. The size and type of the project and the loss of public park land is not consistent with the objectives of the Lakefront Master Plan that went through a long public process and was approved by the City Council.

My second point involves zoning. The property is currently zoned OS-Open Space. B&Bs, hotels, event and/or conference centers are not permitted or special uses in OS, but cultural and educational institutions like the Art Center or a school are. It's possible that the site could also be rezoned R1 because an R1 zoning district already abuts the property to the west. If it is rezoned R1, then, the house could be used as a B&B (not to exceed 5 bedrooms) if approved as a special use.

The problem is that a 60+ room hotel/event center is not a permitted or special use in either OS or R1, and there's no other zoning district that abuts the site that permits this type of use. The result would be "spot zoning," which is not only undesirable but would open the city to a legal challenge. In the 1920s there was a case involving spot zoning on the same block. In that case, the owner of the property wished to build an apartment building. The court said no and upheld the city's zoning. Single family homes at Milburn Park were eventually built there.

So, the city's dilemma is finding a compatible use for the house and grounds that is consistent with either OS or R1.

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