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After its proposal to restore the Harley Clarke Mansion failed to win city support two years ago, a local nonprofit says it is coming back with an updated plan for the historic lakefront property.

Now called Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens, the volunteer group was formed in 2015 when the city ended its lease with the Evanston Art Center, which had occupied the mansion since the 1960s. At the time, the city estimated that the 1927 building needed more than $400,000 in repairs to bring it up to code— a sum the art center could not afford.

The group says it is planning a proposal that will expand its previous focus on environmental education to include such activities as square dancing, tai chi, cooking classes, poetry slams and book readings, among others. The city is currently accepting proposals from interested groups until Feb. 28, 2020.

Situated adjacent to the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse and Lighthouse Beach, the city-owned mansion has remained closed since 2015, as residents and aldermen debated what should become of the property.

In May, the city issued a request for proposals for the long-term lease of the mansion, and on Aug. 6, the city held the first of two community meetings where interested parties could present their ideas. As of that meeting, no formal proposals had been submitted, officials said. However, members of Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens were present to announce that they are working on another proposal for the property.

“It will include a plan along with identifying financial backing that actualizes the will of our Evanston community,” president Emily Guthrie said at the meeting, reading from a prepared statement.

The fate of the Harley Clarke Mansion — built for utilities magnate Harley Clarke, with gardens by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen — has been hotly contested for years. According to a city timeline, Evanston first issued a request for interest in the property in May 2012. Local billionaire Jennifer Pritzker submitted a proposal to transform the mansion into a boutique hotel, but city council members decided not to move forward with the plan after residents raised concerns about beachfront access and the privatization of public property.

Next in line for the site was the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which tried to negotiate purchase of the property from the end of 2013 through 2015, according to the city. That, too, went nowhere, and in September 2016 the city council approved a proposal to keep the property in city hands and set aside funds for improvements.

In August 2017, the city issued a request for proposals, seeking a nonprofit group to lease the mansion. Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens came forward with a $5.3 million plan to restore the building and set it up as a community space, under a 40-year lease at $1 per year. The art center also leased the property for $1 per year.

City council members ultimately declined to approve the lease agreement with Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens after several aldermen raised concerns about the group’s ability to secure the necessary funds. At the time, the nonprofit had raised $12,000 in cash donations and had pledges from more than 75 individual donors totaling $100,000, according to the 2017 proposal.

The next major development for the Harley Clarke Mansion went in the other direction completely, when the city signed a memorandum of understanding in August 2018 with Evanston Lighthouse Dunes, a group of private donors who offered to fund demolition of the mansion and restore the site to its natural state. Ultimately, the city decided not to raze the building after the Preservation Commission denied a demolition certificate and residents came out in force to advocate for the building’s preservation.

That put future re-use back on the table and paved the way for the current request for proposals.

In submitting a revised proposal, Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens plans to improve and broaden the scope of its original plan, and particularly, to look for more money, according to Guthrie. She said that the group already had one donor willing to commit $500,000 to the project.

Over the past few months, the group has held three meetings to solicit ideas for the space from the community. While the original proposal focused on environmental education, Guthrie said the new proposal would broaden the scope of programming, including such activities as square dancing, tai chi, cooking classes, poetry slams and book readings, among others.

“The ideas have exploded beyond just education,” said fellow board member Patrick Donnelly, who helped put together the original budget in 2017.

He said community members were particularly excited that the group plans to put a cafe in the building, and noted that one person suggested installing an ice rink in the winter, which would also help support the cafe. Offering a range of activities that appeal to everyone is the goal, Donnelly said.

“We have all these key players in town who are saying, ‘Let’s keep it as a community space,’” he said.

To date, Evanston Community Lakehouse & Gardens has 25 to 30 volunteer board members, according to Guthrie.

The city will hold one more meeting where interested parties can present their proposals to the community, scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 5 in the Parasol Room of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center at 2100 Ridge Ave.

Officials are also opening the Harley Clarke Mansion for tours on select days in September and October to anyone who wishes to submit a proposal.

Jennifer Fisher is a freelance reporter.


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