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Finally, there’s a solid plan to save the Thompson Center

The proposal from the Prime Group to buy and renovate the Loop building is a sensible and realistic outcome to the long-running saga of what to do with the center, designed by the late Helmut Jahn.

The James R. Thompson Center could look like this, under a reuse plan for the building approved by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

It’s still early in the game, but for now, we like the plan to rehab and reuse — rather than wreck and remove — the beleaguered James R. Thompson Center.

Under a proposal approved by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state would sell the iconic government building for $70 million to a group headed by developer Prime Group.

Prime Group says it would then plow $280 million into renovating the building into office, retail and hotel space. The state would buy back and use at least five floors of office space in the renovated building for $148 million, according to Crain’s Chicago, giving the government a 30% ownership stake in the structure.

While we’ve got questions about the numbers, preservation is the most sensible and realistic outcome for the Thompson Center. The state was never going to find a developer who’d pay $200 million to acquire the building — as was the fevered dream of Pritzker’s predecessor Gov. Bruce Rauner — and then spend additional hundreds of millions to construct a new tower on the site.

And even if that had happened, it would’ve been at the expense of an iconic building that boasts one of the finest interior spaces in the city.

This solution rightfully seeks to keep the building alive and give it the improvements it’s long needed.

The sale of the building could close within six months. Renovation could start within a year.

‘For the benefit of the city and state’

The colorful and glassy Thompson Center visually dazzled the city after its 1985 construction, but the honeymoon was short-lived.

The $172 million building’s heating and mechanical flaws, plus shortcuts to curb its ballooning construction price, became as much a part of the city’s folklore as are the Blizzard of ‘67 or the 1992 Loop flood.

So we don’t blame the state for wanting to unload the 17-story building at 100 W. Randolph St. when the bill for all that, some $325 million, came due.

But for the state to seek to demolish the building without serious and public consideration of preservation — and that was the case until Wednesday — was wrong.

And as long as that discussion was off the table, so too were important related issues, such as how to demolish and replace a building with four bustling CTA train stops without disrupting transit service.

And what about the leased retail space? How much would taxpayers have to shell out to make the leaseholders whole before asking them to leave?

Demolition held more questions than answers, which means the public was virtually certain to lose financially.

Though not without its own risks, preserving the Thompson Center made the most sense.

A view from the west, showing the proposed renovation of the Thompson Center.
JAHN

Prime Group Chairman Michael Reschke said his development group was initially “a bit cynical, because of the reputation the building had. But we took a very hard, conscientious look at the opportunity to make further investment in LaSalle Street, for the benefit of local businesses, the city and the state.”

We’ve got questions, though

The Prime Group’s response beat out two other bids for the Thompson Center.

Details are sketchy about those bids and how the Prime Group was selected, because state officials largely — and wrongly, in our view — kept the process hidden. The state now says a lot of factors went into the decision, including design quality, and the process did not require them to just take the highest bid.

Fair enough. But the lack of transparency about the selection and the financials is troubling, especially given the size and importance of the site.

Another potential demerit: The Thompson Center building would lose its distinctive color scheme, both inside and out with the renovation.

The exterior would gain a new exterior glass wall system, replacing what’s currently there. And that soaring atrium would be remodeled and retained, but seems to lose a lot of its current flash and pizazz, almost washed-out to the point of anonymity, according to renderings.

Prime Group has chosen JAHN, the architecture firm owned by the Thompson Center’s original architect, the late Helmut Jahn, to design the rehab.

We hope this means there is room for improvement in the redesign of the atrium — especially since one-third of the building will still belong to the taxpayers when the deal is done.

A review of the proposed remodeled atrium of the Thompson Center.

Jahn, who was killed last May in a bicycling accident, spoke in favor of reusing the building and had proposed redesign schemes (far better-looking than what’s presented here) to that end.

“The architectural history is full of examples where such repurposing has brought new life to structures like this,” Jahn said then. “This will require some changes be made. The building will only survive this way, and will become a landmark for the 21st Century.”

Much of his dream, it seems, might now become reality. But only if the care is taken to do it right.

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