After receiving thousands of petitions, countless e-mails and numerous phone calls opposing the proposed sale of Evanston’s lakefront Harley Clarke Mansion to Hyatt Hotel heir James Pritzker, city council members voted 6-3 Monday to reject Pritzker’s bid.
Pritzker submitted an offer of $1.2 million for the mansion and 2.5 acres of surrounding parkland last year, after the city issued a request for proposals for purchase of the mansion alone. He proposed turning it into a 57-room boutique hotel, while maintaining some public access to the beach nearby.
Before a crowd of people that overflowed out of the city council chambers and into two separate rooms set up for attendees, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl told the residents “blame me if you’re concerned.”
“I did, as did someone else, want to find an adaptive reuse for the mansion and suggested to Col Pritzker that he have a bed and breakfast there,” Tisdahl said. “His proposal was not what I had anticipated, and I do not believe we should sell public land, nor do I believe this council intends to sell public land.”
Asked to clarify who the second person was who supported the proposal, Tisdahl told Patch she did not want to identify the person to whom she was referring. She said she could not remember specifically when she had a conversation with Pritzker, but said it happened within the last year and was not an official meeting.
Ald. Don Wilson (4th ward) moved to decline the proposal submitted by Pritzker’s company, Tawani Enterprises. The motion passed 6-3, with aldermen Ann Rainey (8th ward), Delores Holmes (5th ward) and Coleen Burrus (9th ward) voting against it.
“It’s a question of preserving a community asset,” said Wilson, who also thanked Tawani Enterprises for the proposal. City officials have said they put the mansion up for bid because the city could not afford the upkeep on the historic property—including what Tisdahl described as “millions of dollars of deferred maintenance.”
Lakefront Ald. Judy Fiske (1st Ward), who has been vocal in her opposition of the proposed sale of the mansion, said the city acquired the mansion for the purpose of increasing parkland in Evanston, and that purpose should be kept in mind.
“What happens to the house happens to the parkland,” Fiske said. “And we’re really park poor in Evanston.”
Fellow lakefront alderman Melissa Wynne (2nd Ward) said she would rather see the building disassembled than used for commercial space.
“I know that many of you think that’s awful,” Wynne said. “But I think we need to consider that, because it will be difficult for us to find the appropriate dollars to restore this building.”
Ald. Burrus, however, said she opposed the motion to reject Pritzker’s bid precicsely because of the issue of money. She said the building was “severely deteriorated,” with lead-based paint, asbestos, and lead in the water, and would need a new roof costing well over $1 million.
“I agree…with the beach and the parkland not being sold, but we need to look very constructively at what to do with the building because it is a liability, not an asset,” Burrus said.
Ald. Wilson made a second motion directing the city manager to find an alternate use for the building that did not involve public parkland, which was passed unanimously. City manager Wally Bobkiewicz said he would return in September with additional ideas for the use of the building, plus an evaluation of the building’s current state of repair.
At least 63 people signed up to speak at the city council meeting, the majority of whom came to tell the council that they opposed the sale of the mansion. Many praised the council’s decision not to sell parkland, but also called for public engagement and transparency in future discussion of the property.
“The transparency issue is really critical,” said 80-year Evanston resident Bennett Johnson. “You don’t own that seat. You represent the people that put you there—and you forget sometimes your respect to them.”