Conflicting community values are complicating efforts to decide what to do with Evanston’s Harley Clarke mansion.

A news analysis

A reader earlier this week asked me to explain how we got to the state we’re in with the city-owned lakefront mansion — having no clear direction for it after years of debate.

Here’s my tally of the often conflicting values I see at play. Most of us may see some merit in each, but we likely would rank them differently. And it’s hard to see how any disposition of the mansion can satisfy them all.

Parkland is golden

Many of the folks who fought to defeat the boutique hotel proposal argue that the city should never, ever sell parkland — especially parkland on the lakefront. While they’ve failed to persuade aldermen to adopt ordinances embracing that philosophy broadly — their arguments played a major role in getting aldermen to reject the boutique hotel plan.

Passive lakefront

Many folks active in developing the lakefront master plan contend that only passive uses — like walking and sunbathing — should be permitted along Evanston’s lakefront. Under this argument, even if the city retained ownership of the mansion, any active use of it — say for a successful restaurant — would be anathema.

Preservation foremost

Other Evanstonians are avid historic preservationists. While the “passive lakefront”  and “parkland is golden” advocates might be OK with tearing down the mansion and planting grass where it stood, the preservationists would mourn the loss of a landmark property.

Fiscal responsibility

Evanston’s budget, and its taxpayers, have been under severe strain in recent years — and folks who focus on this issue insist that the taxpayers can’t afford to pay the cost of upkeep on the mansion. They won a victory of sorts when the City Council terminated the $1 a year lease with the Evanston Art Center — but efforts to find a new tenant who could pay the freight have so far failed. If no better solution turns up, fiscal responsibility might argue for inexpensive demolition.

Growth and jobs

People who focus on economic development saw a potential victory in the boutique hotel project — lots of new tax revenue and jobs. They also saw something of a consolation prize in the state office project. A grassy space won’t be a win from this perspective.

Distrust of government

Two strains here — some residents are convinced that whatever the  city wants to do will turn out to have been a bad idea. And arguably even more distrust state government. The first strain helped build opposition to the boutique hotel plan, and the second led aldermen to refuse to consider selling the land under the mansion to the state — for fear of what it might do with the property at some point in the future. That played a major role in killing the state office proposal.

Perhaps you see other values at play. More thoughts welcome in the comments.

Bill Smith is the publisher of Evanston Now.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Bad deal in the First Place
    This is not the first or the second time that the modern City of Evanston has had to made decisions about historical structures that were essentially dumped on the city. How is it that the City owns this “historical” mansion that requires millions of dollars of upkeep? Which owner of a tax paying property gave it to the city in the first place when it should have stayed on the tax rolls?

    We have played out this story again and again. School District 65 had to stay in a cramped “mansion” for decades before building a more modern and flexible structure. The city administrative offices are trapped in a crumbling school with much more square footage than is necessary because the very vocal neighbors refuse to allow development of that property and the preservationists love the building and those who want the city to subsist on pennies won’t abide conversation about a new modern building.

    Someone, somewhere, made out like a bandit, dumping inconvenient property on a municipality, that has caused nothing but trouble for generations.

    It was a bad deal then and it’s a bad deal now. The big house is just a big house, we have plenty of them the Northshore won’t miss this one. However, the City of Evanston really does need a nice venue for weddings and other special events. Either make the house pay for itself as an event venue, or take it down brick by brick and create a space that fills the recreation needs of the people of Evanston.

    The house, as it is now, has very little value for the most of us.

    1. Who Made Out Like A Bandit
      Candice, you are absolutely right, someone did make out like a bandit.

      That entity is called the Evanston Arts Center, or EAC.

      And bandit is a kind term for this ethically challenged non profit.

      1. Mansion history
        Hi Candace and Dan,

        The city purchased the mansion in 1965 from the Sigma Chi fraternity, which had used the building for its national headquarters after purchasing it from the Clarke family around 1950.

        It presumably was an arms-length transaction.

        If I had to guess, I would assume that the beach that came with the mansion was the main value the city saw in the purchase.

        As we are seeing today with the breakdown of the deal with the state, nobody’s eager to put big dollars into renovating a property unless they own it free and clear — and the art center did not even have a long-term lease.

        Given the $1 a year rent, the art center likely should have invested more money toward the upkeep of the mansion than it did — but that mainly illustrates the peril of leasing your property out for $1 a year and a vague promise regarding upkeep costs.

        — Bill

  2. I’m all for the boutique hotel

    Let the Pritzkers build their small hotel. As part of the deal, I'm sure they'd be willing to preserve public beach access and would build a prettier walkway than the present one. People are too quick too assume that all business is bad.

    1. Boutique Hotel

      Everyone should go take a walk around this building. I did last week and it is one scary money-pit. Pritzker should be contacted and asked if she would like to buy the house with a long-term lease on the property.

    2. Agree But…

      I agree with your post Joy.  But look at our environment and the thinking here in Evanston… a lot of folks are just against for profit businesses and also prefer to demean those that are wealthy from business.  

      Pritzker will not return, that opportunity is gone.  I do believe she already launched a B&B anyway.

      A smart business person may say that under the environment Evanston exists in, it may be better to just walk away, favoring another suburb to do business, particularly on the lakefront.


  3. Gathering Place
    City should consider converting it into a gathering place for residents to get together for for various types of entertainments. Something different scheduled every week or so. Dancing music movies. Of course a modest fee would be charged with extra for beverages Would be great chance to meet neighbors and fellow residents of Evanston..

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