Council Chambers was packed, the anteroom was packed and two other rooms were made available for the crowds of residents to observe the July 22 City Council meeting. Sixty-five residents had signed up to speak at Citizen Comment – the 45 minutes allocated to the public to address the Council before aldermen begin the regular agenda.
Many, it appeared, wished to express their concern, objections, consternation, anger or other emotion regarding a proposal before the City Council from James Pritzker’s Taiwani Enterprises. The proposal is to purchase the Harley Clarke mansion, current home of the Evanston Art Center, and about three acres of adjacent public park land and develop the site with a 57-room “boutique” hotel with underground parking.
But a speech by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and two subsequent motions by Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson may have allayed many concerns.
“I do not believe we should sell park land,” the Mayor said. “If you are concerned about the sale of park land, the simple fact of the matter is, blame me that there is a proposal before [City Council].” She said that when the City was looking for adaptive reuse possibilities for the mansion, she asked Mr. Pritzker to propose a bed-and-breakfast establishment there.
“His proposal was not what I had anticipated, and I do not believe that we should sell public land, nor do I believe that this Council intends to sell public land,” the Mayor said.
At that point people in Chambers and in the anteroom burst into applause that would recur during the Mayor’s and others’ speeches.
But, the Mayor said, Mr. Pritzker “was responding to what his Mayor asked him to do, and so I thank him for that. Thank you for the yard signs. Thank you all for being here. It is heartening to know that we have a Council that I believe will not sell public land and that we have a community that would not let us sell public land if we were going to sell public land. So I love the yard signs and I love you all for being here.”
Ald. Wilson thanked Taiwani and others who responded to the City’s request for proposals for the mansion and said, “We make progress through ideas. It is important for the community and the public to present ideas to us and to assist us in coming up with ways to improve the community and our facilities. With that said, this particular proposal that has been presented to us is not what I was looking for.”
Ald. Wilson said the park is important to him and to his family, but “the threshold [issue] is one of preserving a community asset. I move that we decline this proposal that has been submitted by Taiwani.”
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said she wanted to make it clear that Council is “still in discussion about the building. I think there are several people who are still interested in looking at an adaptive reuse and are looking for proposal for an adaptive reuse.” She added that she believes the building is a liability rather than an asset because of the substantial repairs needed – replacing the roof and the windows, for example. “On top of that, even if you re-did all those things, what would you do with that building? We need to look at the reuse of this building. We are $300 million in debt; we have a huge crime problem and we have a youth problem with jobs. We need to look at what is best for the whole City.”
Ald. Wilson’s motion passed 6-3 with Aldermen Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, Ann Rainey, 8th Ward and Ald. Burrus voting against it.
Next Step: A Community Process
Several aldermen seemed eager to involve the community in further discussion about the use of the mansion.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, proposed a series of community conversations so the public can brainstorm and “create something that more of us can use.” She suggested a café, outdoor weddings and renting beach umbrellas.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said those and similar uses were contemplated in the Lakefront Master Plan, adopted by Council in 2008. She also said, “You can’t take the house off the park land. We are park-poor. Forty years ago the City acquired the Harley Clarke mansion not for the house but for the lakefront and the park.” Similarly, she said, the City purchased what is now Ingraham Park when it purchased Marywood Academy at 2100 Ridge Ave. to be used as the Civic Center.
“If the choice is commercializing the lakefront or not repairing the building, I would rather have the building dismantled,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne. She said the City could sell the materials for salvage and save some stones and other memorabilia to have an artist create a piece that would be evocative of the spirit of the building.
Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam said, “I would not like to see this beautiful building torn down.” He said the City had other, more pressing, repairs needed for the Chandler-Newberger Center, the Ecology Center and the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. He could see that the building could be “temporarily shuttered” until the City had the means to repair and restore it.
Ald. Fiske said the area there is zoned Open Space (OS) and that she would be very concerned about any change of zoning in that area. “I think we have to take it step by step.”
Ald. Wilson said, “The big picture here is property, process and achieving results. We should follow through with this as a public process.”
A second motion by Ald. Wilson passed unanimously: to direct City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz “to reopen the process for finding a use for the property that does not include the sale of park land.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said City staff would “come back in 60 days with an evaluation of the building.”
Only a few of the some 65 who had signed up to speak at Citizen Comment left after the Mayor’s speech and Alderman Wilson’s motion; and only a few of those remaining did not in some manner address the mansion. Some praised the Council for having rejected the Taiwani offer, some decried the fact that it had taken this long for them to decide to reject it, but most offered their support for a process to determine the best public, community use for the mansion.
Anna Roosevelt, responding to Ald. Burrus’ statement about the repairs needed to the mansion, said that her house, like many vintage and historic homes in Evanston, has asbestos, lead and a leaking roof, and it needs new windows, but homeowners manage these things. She added, “We are so grateful for your recommitment or restatement of the principle of augmentation of public resources like parks and park facilities and buildings for public use and not for alienation to private entities – especially not for totally inadequate prices, but $20 million would not be nearly enough [for the mansion].”
Carl Bova said he had recently been to an event at The Grove in Glenview, where the rent was $6,000. He said if the City would rent the mansion for weddings, it could expect to generate $600,000 to $1 million – perhaps even $2 million – of income per year. “That would make up for any renovation costs,” he said.
Eve Epstein of noparksale.org, an ad-hoc group that materialized after news of the planned hotel became public, said, “We who have organized against the Taiwani proposal are here for the long haul. We are not here just to say ‘no’; we are here to work with you … and all Evanston. We see this as one responsibility as stewards of this great public treasure.” Noparksale.org said they had garnered the support of nearly 2,500 residents in the few weeks of their existence.
Speaking for Southeast Evanston Association (SEA), Judith Ramey said the group was “sorry it took all of this to get to this point [but this] shows the strength of Evanston citizen power.”
Stewart Grill said he has lived in Evanston for 50 years and that for eight years he handled real estate transactions for the Pritzker family. “I think a great disservice was done to James Pritzker … who responded to [the City’s] RFP [request for proposals], expending money and time on architects and engineers in good faith.”
“The ideal process,” said Jeff Smith, “would have been to find out what the citizens want and then try to do that.” He said Evanston often reverses the process: “Developers propose, citizens oppose. … Government has a duty to safeguard and preserve the common [areas] for the public. If you follow that process here, I believe you will come up with something that reflects both our values and this community’s vision.”