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Editorial: Find a use for old Post Office or tear it down

A fire was reported Tuesday at the vacant former main Post Office. | Sun-Times file photo

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Make it work or tear it down.

Chicago’s Old Main Post Office, straddling the eastern end of the Eisenhower Expressway, has been sitting empty now for two decades.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to use the city’s power of eminent domain to gain title to the enormous structure, and that sounds right to us. The current owner, British developer Bill Davies, has done nothing with the Art Deco building for eight years, even as that corner of the Loop struggles to thrive.

Plans have come and gone. Enough already.

Emanuel has said he wants to tear the building down; he wants to take it over and solicit bids to redevelop it. But there must be serious doubt at this point as to whether anybody will ever hit upon a practical new use for this white elephant from a lost day — back when mail, not email, was king.

We’re talking 2.5 million square feet of floor space. Sixty acres.

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The entire neighborhood could be so much more vibrant, dynamic and commercially desirable. But the empty post office sucks in the energy like a black hole.

Emanuel wants to get started on requests for proposals immediately, with a winner to be given the go-ahead by this summer. Whichever developer gets its hands on the project will be expected to move forward without help from taxpayers.

Terrific. But let’s also start a clock ticking. If the city and a developer can’t put together a final use for this building in some short but reasonable span of time — let’s say a year — how about we just tear it down?

Don’t yell at us. We’d hate to see that, too. The old Post Office was designed by the same architects who gave us the Field Museum, the Merchandise Mart and Union Station. It’s close to all sorts of transportation links. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, says, “This is an amazing structure in every regard. We would like to see this building retained and reused.”

But even the most architecturally significant building has to serve a purpose. And right now the old Post Office is in danger of demolition by neglect. It has been cited for building code violations.

Everybody has had an idea for this thing, and every idea has gone bust. Make it a retail mall, or a casino, or an indoor auto mall, or a high-speed rail terminal, or a parking lot, or a water park, or a hotel, or an office building, or the biggest condo building in the world, or an exhibition hall for the hardware industry.

Allowing a municipality to move in and condemn a privately owned building is a dicey proposition. Where does such government intrusion end? Eminent domain is a power easily abused.

But the coercive use of eminent domain in this case is entirely justified. Two decades is a more than reasonable amount of time to let private developers get their act together, which they have not.

In the meantime, the old Post Office looms empty and dark above the expressway, a message to everybody driving by that Chicago doesn’t have its act together.

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