It all seemed so simple four years ago.
The state would sell the iconic James R. Thompson Center to a developer, rid itself of a building that had become a deferred maintenance nightmare, get a shiny new skyscraper built on the site — and rake in a cool $200 million for the effort.
Then the pandemic changed everything.
Yet the Pritzker administration is forging ahead as if nothing has happened, taking steps to sell the building, aided by Ald. Brendan Reilly’s move last month to upzone the site to allow a taller structure, which would sweeten the pot for potential developers.
Given Chicago’s seismic economic and real estate shifts of late, we’d urge caution regarding selling the Thompson Center.
A complicated site
We’ve supported the state’s longstanding desire to get out from under the financial and operational burden of the Thompson Center. State officials say getting rid of the building would spare them from having to spend $300 million to repair the building.
But that’s no reason not to conduct a clear-eyed reexamination of the plan right now and make sure this solution is the best for the city, and not one that just takes the state off the hook.
We’re having a tough time, for instance, imagining a developer at this point paying the state $200 million for the building and then incurring the added costs of razing the 17-story structure, with its subterranean levels and basements.
The challenge of pulling down the building and erecting a new one is further complicated by a city requirement that the Clark/Lake L stop — downtown’s busiest and accessed from the Thompson Center — remains open during demolition and construction. Same for the Blue Line station beneath the building.
If we’re looking at this deal with an eye toward history — and in doing so, we’re reminded of the long years of unrealized grand plans for Block 37 on State Street — we have to at least raise the possibility that the state will have to convey the building to a developer on the cheap, if not for free, in order to spark new development there. This gives us pause.
So does the fate of the former Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building, 300 W. Washington St. The 17-story 1927 building was wrecked in 2003 — and that was when the economy was good — and was supposed to be replaced by a taller skyscraper.
Instead, the site has been a vacant lot for almost 20 years.
Patient public process needed
Ald. Reilly’s proposal to upzone the Thompson Center site to allow for a development of up to 2 million square feet does, though, open the door wider to something potentially beneficial happening there. A developer could put up a building as big and high as the 40-story Chase Tower, depending on the configuration.
Christine Carlyle, principal and director of planning for the Chicago architecture firm SCB, tells us she could image a distinctly designed mixed-use building that features restaurants along Randolph Street and four active sides, whereas the Thompson Center really offers only one major point of interaction with the surrounding streets.
“I think it’s a place where you want to make sure [a new building] is done with a kind of character,” she said. “There is more of an opportunity for a more iconic [building] ... and not to have it bulked out, but to give it some shape.”
Carlyle is right. And if a new building on the site is a must, City Hall must insist on a design process that is patient, public and bull-headed enough to make this happen.
We also believe the state should take advantage of this lull in the local economy to broaden the number of suitors and possibilities for the site by making an imaginative reuse of the Thompson Center — not just tearing it down — a serious option.
The state already is in the process of moving employees from the Thompson Center to a newly purchased West Loop building, which is unsurprising. Nobody is seriously talking about the state hanging on to Thompson Center.
But that means the clock is ticking.
And the last thing Chicago’s Loop needs is for the Thompson Center to become an empty glass tomb waiting years for a suitor.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.