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‘Love it or hate it’? List it, Pritzker says — puts Thompson Center up for sale

Exterior of the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, in Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

It’s been talked about for years, but Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday moved the state closer to selling what many call an expensive eyesore, the James R. Thompson Center.

Pritzker on Friday signed a measure that will make it easier to sell the often-criticized state building at 100 W. Randolph. The legislation was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2017 but was never sent to then-Gov. Bruce Rauner due to a procedural hold.

Effective immediately, the measure provides for the sale of the Thompson Center by a “competitive sealed proposal process within two years.” The buyer must also enter into an agreement with the city and the Chicago Transit Authority to maintain operations of the Clark and Lake station, which is one of the most complex and busy CTA stations in the city.

The selling of the Thompson Center was not included in Pritzker’s budget but had been counted as proposed savings in Rauner’s past three budgets.

Pritzker has said he wants to sell the building to use it as “an asset to offset liabilities, possibly liabilities in the pension system.”

Protestors demonstrate inside the Thompson Center, which houses many state offices, on December 9, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (File Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Protestors demonstrate inside the Thompson Center, which houses many state offices, on December 9, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (File Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The governor’s office vowed to get the sale done, while offering more parting shots at Rauner.

“Selling the Thompson Center is long overdue and will allow the state to leverage one of our biggest assets to help stabilize the pension system,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. “Unlike the previous administration, the governor is serious about responsibly using the proceeds of the sale, and he looks forward to a deal being negotiated to benefit taxpayers. After years of delays, it’s time to see this through.”

The newly elected Democrat’s administration’s plans to deal with an astounding $130 billion in pension debt includes borrowing money, deferring scheduled payments, transferring assets and using money from a not-yet-approved graduated income tax.

Employees at the Thompson Center — who have often complained about its underutilization and maintenance issues such as water leaks — will be moved to the Michael A. Bilandic building across the street, and “other under-utilized, state-owned or rented facilities,” the governor’s office said. About 2,200 state employees work in the building.

The governor’s office also detailed a timeline for the sale, with the state to publish a Request For Proposal (RFP) within a year. Developers would then get four to five months to develop proposals. The state would decide on the developer within three months, and then negotiate and award a contract within two months.

The building — designed by Helmut Jahn — opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center under then-Gov. Thompson. The Chicago Republican boasted the building, which he called the first office building of the year 2000, was “open,” “honest” and “friendly.”

A model of the proposed State of Illinois Center, unveiled in 1980 by then Gov. James Thompson. 
A model of the proposed State of Illinois Center, unveiled in 1980 by Gov. Thompson. Thompson then called it the first office building of the year 2000. File Photo.
Sun-Times archives

But it’s been a love-it-or-hate-it kind of building — a whopping 1.2 million square foot structure with a 16-story atrium.

Almost immediately after the building opened, workers complained about problems heating or cooling offices surrounding the soaring open atrium.

The longstanding argument to sell includes the fact that the building sits on an entire city block and the state pays nothing on property tax on its buildings. That means the city could stand to collect millions in property tax revenue from a private owner.

When he moved to sell it in 2017, Rauner said every state employee he spoke with wanted to work somewhere other than the Thompson Center.

“It’s noisy. It’s a little bit smelly, you can smell the restaurants upstairs,” Rauner said.

When the building was named in his honor in 1993, Thompson said he was proud of it, but he didn’t ignore its mixed reviews.

“Chicagoans love it or hate it,” Thompson said, “but they talk about it. That’s Chicago style. We’re open and straight.”

And ten years later, when a sale was first proposed, Thompson raised no objections — even to the idea of a buyer changing the building’s name.

“That’s not a big deal for me. It’s been named for me for a while,” the former governor told the Sun-Times in 2003. “I can still call it the Thompson Center if I want to.”