Artists Book House will no longer occupy Harley Clarke’s mansion in Evanston, the operators told city council members this month after they failed to meet fundraising goals and ended talks with Jens Jensen Gardens, a local organization focused on garden restoration.
The organization dedicated to creating books and giving authors, readers and artists space to create was offered a 40-year contract for the building in May 2021, but has struggled to meet the fundraising goals set out in the contract. Last fall, Artist Book House founder Audrey Niffenegger asked the city council to reconsider the group’s fundraising commitments due to struggles caused by the pandemic, noting that people have limited funds to donate to organizations like The Artists Book House — especially when they focus on health organizations. Need financing.
Artists Book House originally planned to sublet the coach house in the mansion to Jensen Gardens, managed by Charles Smith. When discussing the lease, a dispute between the Artists Book House and Jens Jensen Gardens eventually led to the involvement of the city administration and the Public Works Commission, although the two organizations were required to prepare the leases independently in October.
The commission decided to take the case to mediation with an independent third party after company advisor Nicholas Cummings said the city’s involvement had not been effective when working with organizations in the past.
Niffenegger said, at a meeting of the Public Works and Administration Committee on January 9, that she had tried to reach an agreement with Jensen Parks, but had failed. She said she also offered Smith a place on the Artists Book House panel but he turned it down.
There was a conflict in the lease negotiations, Smith said, alleging that Artist Book House initially changed the contract to a license from a lease before eventually saying it was a non-exclusive lease. He also said that the Artists Book House wanted to retain control and make landscaping changes, which could alter the historic parks that Jensen Gardens works to preserve.
It has since been agreed that Jensen Gardens could explore entering into a direct lease with the city for part of the land.
Once the commission agreed that the dispute should go to mediation, council member Claire Kelly said the preference was for Jensen Gardens to own part of the land, despite the wishes of the Artist Book House.
“Removing Jensen Parks from the project benefits no one,” the Community Coalition for Better Government, an organization that advocates for government transparency and fairness, wrote in its call-to-action email. “Smith’s work has brought together hundreds of Evanston residents, Northwestern students, and members of local garden clubs to volunteer in the effort, which has a strong donor support base.”
Smith said there was a lot of effort to see the site as holistic rather than the building and land as separate entities.
“It doesn’t make sense because historically it didn’t happen,” Smith said. “The only thing that could be offered by keeping this whole space in a large package is if you wanted to do some kind of large-scale development there, which the neighborhood is totally against.”
Speaking at the Department and Public Works meeting on January 23, Smith said the organization considers those who have donated land to be investors who expect a return on their investment.
“You don’t build a landscape and then look back and walk away and say ‘Wow, that’s cool.'” The landscape is very dynamic and takes a long time to evolve, he said. “All we ask is that you help us not disappoint our investors.”
Jens Jensen Gardens Vice President Bill Brown encouraged the council to approve the lease between the city and Jensen Jensen Gardens for the grounds saying that the next mansion tenant would not have the burden of raising funds for the causes.
Councilman Jonathan Newsma was reluctant to move forward with a lease given that it had only been a few weeks since Artist Book House left the property, saying the bigger picture was that the council was responsible for the lot as a whole and the mansion was the most economical. influential part of the Earth.
“I don’t want to prevent a potential future participant in this project from bidding on the project or participating in one way or another by forcing them to work with an existing partner,” he said. “If, in the end, I succeed in working with Jensen, it would give me great pleasure but I do not think it appropriate to jump to that conclusion this evening.”
The history of the influence of the Harley-Clarke Mansion neighborhood stretches back to 2018 when residents voted in favor of a referendum maintaining the mansion and its land as public property.
Other members of the commission, such as Councilwoman Chrissie Harris, said this would not be true mediation if the commission was telling the parties the final outcome, however, Kelly said mediation would be used to determine perimeters and other details. She also said that mediation should not follow the wishes of the committee, but would at least be documented what the “will of the committee” is.
Niffenegger informed the city that the House of Artists’ Writers would not occupy the Harley Clark Mansion three days after the Committee on Administration and Public Works met on January 9. The lease with the Artist Book House has not been formally terminated but council member Eleanor Revell said it is in the works.
The staff management and public works committee voted to continue negotiations with Jensen and return with a final lease for the February 13th meeting.
Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.
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