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Doing what’s best for State Street, Dirksen Building security and Chicago architecture

There’s a strange standoff going on at the corner of State and Adams.

There’s a strange standoff going on at the corner of State and Adams.

Plans to redevelop two vacant early 20th century skyscrapers at the intersection are on hold after a federal law enforcement assessment concluded that allowing people back in the buildings could create a security threat for the nearby Dirksen Federal Building. The fear, bluntly stated, is that bad guys could shoot into the federal courthouse, which stands to the west.

It’s an assertion that puts two arms of the federal government at odds. The U.S. General Services Administration has owned the two buildings — at 202 and 220 S. State St. — since 2005 and has been shopping them around. But there’s now the unexpected safety issue, first raised in 2017 when then-U.S. District Court Chief Justice Ruben Castillo told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that he was concerned about the danger to Dirksen, which is 30 stories high.

A plan on hold

Caught up in the standoff is Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, which this month withdrew its support for a $141 million reuse plan for the two vacant buildings in the face of the safety concerns. The city had hoped to buy the buildings from the GSA and sell them to a local development firm, CA Ventures.

So for now, the two 100-year-old buildings will just sit — vacant and decaying, as they have been since 2005 — until a better idea comes along.

We hope that’s soon. And we hope the new idea involves restoring and reusing the buildings in a way that both addresses the safety concerns and contributes much-needed vitality to that stretch of State Street.

Anti-ballistic windows

Details of the federal security assessment have not been made public, so we don’t know what specific possible security breaches law enforcement officials have identified. But we spoke to two experts, off the record, who suggested that installing anti-ballistic window glass in the two buildings could resolve the concerns.

Another expert told us that ground level service areas behind the two State Street buildings could create some risk to the Dirksen Federal Building because they sit less than a 100-foot blast distance away. But the same potential danger already exists along Jackson, Adams and Dearborn streets, which run alongside the Dirksen.

The federal government’s security concerns must be taken with the utmost seriousness. We appreciate the need to take every reasonable precaution. But what’s best for Chicago, though, would be a solution that still allows the buildings to be redeveloped. Empty spaces along one of Chicago’s most iconic streets do the local economy no good. And Chicago has learned the hard way that razing classic older buildings can be regrettable in the long run.

Talk of demolition

There has, in fact, been talk of simply demolishing the two State Street buildings and replacing them with commercial structures that stand 100 feet or further from the Dirksen Federal Building. But that a solution that ignores the irreplaceable quality of what’s already there.

Built in 1915, the upswept 15-story building at 202 S. State St., reads like a proto-Art Deco structure and was designed by the prominent firm of Holabird & Root. The elegant 21-story 220 S. State St., built in 1913, was designed by Jenney, Mundie & Jensen.

Chicago forced its river to flow backward. It found a way to build skyscrapers on soft clay soil. We urge the federal government and Lightfoot administration to bring their know-how to the table and work together.

Resolve this standoff in a way that respects both the Dirksen’s security needs and Chicago’s architectural heritage.

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