Preserving Thompson Center pulls Pritzker out of a bind

After getting only two responses to the state’s offer of the property, Gov. J.B. Pritzker settles on the one that saves the Helmut Jahn building and is easier to execute, but it still carries risks.

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A view looking up in the James R. Thompson Center in December.

The atrium at the James R. Thompson Center soars over its 17 floors.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

If you wanted the sloping James R. Thompson Center in the Loop to be preserved, thank COVID-19.

The pandemic made it easier for state officials and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to accept a developer’s proposal for renovating the building, as they did last week, rather than condemning it to glassy rubble. The public health crisis has induced a recession over much of commercial real estate, disrupting developers’ dreams of high-rises.

So Pritzker followed the path of least resistance in accepting a bid from Michael Reschke, chairman of Prime Group. Reschke foresees a gut renovation of the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St. Goodbye leaky windows, perverse HVAC systems, torn carpets and makeshift cubicle warrens.

With state government occupying floors 2 through 7, Reschke wants to bring in office users and a hotel, adding glass walls to insulate the occupied floors from the atrium, the building’s signature feature. “I just think of having black-tie functions in that space,” Reschke said.

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He wants to bring the late Helmut Jahn’s design to high society. Doing so appealed to the state on several levels, enough for the Pritzker administration to become, in effect, Reschke’s business partner.

It was a turnabout from weeks of posturing by the governor and his Department of Central Management Services, which handles state property. They were officially neutral on whether the building, a landmark in the hearts of some, should be saved. Everything they said, though, indicated a desire to leave it behind and to let it be razed. “Oversized, outdated and expensive” were their operative words.

It turns out the state wants space there anyway. All that dismissive talk was Pritzker playing a weak hand as best he could. Why not encourage high-rolling offers based on a teardown?

But all he got were two responses to the CMS request for proposals. “I was surprised that others didn’t see the opportunity here,” Reschke said. Experts say others looked and ran the other way. Truth is, if the state didn’t agree to keep offices in the building, it may have gotten zero bids.

As a sign of fealty to Jahn’s vision, Reschke is working with Philip Castillo, who runs the architectural firm Jahn founded and is a strong advocate for the building’s reuse. Castillo has called it “one of the most amazing urban spaces in the United States.”

Michael Reschke, chairman of Prime Group, speaks at a news conference called by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in December.

Michael Reschke, chairman of Prime Group

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

As for the governor suddenly saving the postmodern design, it’s tempting to quote “Casablanca”: “As I suspected, you’re a rank sentimentalist.” Of course, in his news conference about the deal, he said his main interest was the taxpayers.

Pritzker can say he is selling Reschke about 70% of the building for $70 million, but that leaves out key facts. To pay for its share of capital improvements, the state would send Reschke $148 million over two years, under one option summarized by CMS. Another option would spread the payments over 30 years. Details have to be settled.

Critics probably will say Pritzker got snookered into paying for property the state already owns. That’s not so. It’s like state government is trading in an eight-track player, with Reschke promising surround sound in return.

It’s also important the arrangement lets the government reduce leasing costs downtown. A CMS summary said it can cancel leases at six other Chicago locations, saving about $20 million a year over 30 years. The leases are at 33 S. State St., 17 N. State St., 122 S. Michigan Ave., 300 W. Adams St., 527 S. Wells St. and 1112 S. Wabash Ave. This year, the state also has moved agencies into owned space at 555 W. Monroe St.

The only other bid came from Bob Dunn, president of Landmark Development, who shot for the moon. Dunn, the proponent of the One Central development that now would include a casino, would have built space for the state at a net cost to taxpayers of about $190 million, counting an “equity investment” in his high-rises. Terms in the CMS summary were complex. Millions of dollars zipped to and fro, like at the old Chicago trading floors.

Compared with that, the Reschke deal is safer but still involves risk. The developer’s share of the renovation costs is an estimated $280 million, a liability that would vanish from the state’s ledgers. It wouldn’t require a zoning change, unlike the Dunn plan, and it could be completed faster. “I’m not interested in 20-year projects anymore,” said Reschke, 66.

The problems arise if he can’t deliver the renovation or find tenants. Wouldn’t it be funny if someday the state, having spent years talking about being rid of the building, buys out Reschke and takes over the whole place again? Renovation redux.

Someone somewhere would call it the Thompson-Pritzker Center.

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