Blue and yellow signs are popping up around Evanston, calling on the city council to “Say NO” to the proposed sale of the city-owned Harley Clarke mansion, located on 2.5 acres of lakefront public property.
City officials issued a request for proposals for the mansion last November, and received one bid of $1.2 million from James Pritzker’s Tawani Enterprises. The Hyatt Hotel heir has proposed turning the mansion into a 57-room boutique hotel, while maintaining some public access to the beach nearby.
Aldermen are expected to discuss the sale of the mansion and how to respond to Tawani’s proposal at Monday night’s city council meeting, according to the meeting’s agenda online. It will be the first time city council members have discussed the sale in open session since the city issued a request for proposals last year, although city officials have met with Tawani representatives in closed session meetings three times since then.
Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl has said the city simply can’t afford the upkeep on the historic property, which was originally built as a private residence and now serves as the home of the Evanston Art Center.
"The Harley Clarke Mansion has millions of dollars of deferred maintenance and the city does not have the resources to complete a renovation of the building," Tisdahl said at a June city council meeting. She also said that the city’s discussions of the sale with Tawani have included “maintaining complete public access to the grounds and beach.”
Many residents, however, say that the promise to maintain access to the beach is not enough—and that selling lakefront parkland is simply wrong, period.
“The bottom line is protecting our lakefront and the entire Lake Michigan lakefront from private development,” says Evanston resident Barbara Janes, who founded a group opposed to the sale of the mansion along with two other Evanston residents.
Janes said her group made 1,000 signs opposing the sale of the mansion, and had distributed 980 by Friday afternoon.
“This is not a north and south issue,” said Janes. “Most of us have spoken to people in every ward in this city, north, south, east, west, and … they are appalled. You should see the expressions on their faces.”
Janes said her group would “have a presence” at Monday night’s city council meeting, when aldermen are expected to receive an update from city staff on the proposed sale of the mansion.
Fellow group founder Mary Rosinski and six other people also spoke up in opposition of the sale at last week’s city council meeting, although discussion of the mansion was not listed on the agenda.
Rosinski noted that the city’s original request for proposals referenced only the sale of the buildings themselves—but Pritzker’s proposal is to purchase both the buildings and the 2.5 acres of parkland that surrounds them.
The text of the request for proposals described it this way: “The City of Evanston is soliciting proposals that contemplate the purchase of the buildings and land occupied by the buildings; the purchase of the buildings only; or the long term lease of the buildings.”
“What came back to you was an unsolicited offer to purchase 2.5 acres of our parkland,” Rosinski said at the council meeting. “I think if you were to move forward with this, it would demonstrate just how out of touch you would be with your constituents.”
Another speaker at the meeting, Chad Galen, pointed to the Evanston city seal posted on the wall behind the aldermen. It depicts the Grosse Point Lighthouse surrounded by several iconic buildings nearby—including the Harley Clarke Mansion.
“I would hope that you guys would reconsider the sale of this property,” said Galen, adding that he had enjoyed camping in the park with his daughter and hoped she would one day be able to take her own kids camping there.
Fellow Evanston resident Alex Block started a petition on Change.org opposing the sale of the mansion. Nearly 2,000 people have signed the petition so far, which states: “Selling this historic lakefront property at a fraction of its value is shortsighted and contrary to our community’s values and interests.”
Meanwhile, Pritzker’s team contends that the project will ultimately be a boon to the city, including a faithful historic restoration on par with other restorations Tawani has done throughout the Chicago area, as well as jobs and other economic benefits generated by the hotel. Furthermore, Pritzker’s team vows that public access to the lakefront along the current path will be maintained.
Dawn Overend, coordinator of Pritzker’s projects in Evanston, says she believes people have jumped to conclusions about the project, particularly about access to the public beach.
“We had hoped to beautify and improve access to the public beach and to the park,” Overend told Patch in June. ““When you have this treasure, we’d like to be open to the public.”