Casino or not, city has big decisions to make regarding Lakeside Center

While the future of Soldier Field takes up a lot of oxygen in Chicago’s political and civic discourse, its neighbor to the south, Lakeside Center, looms just as large.

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Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, shown in 2011, contains more than 580,000 square feet of exhibit space that could be used for a casino.

Lakeside Center was a breakthrough when it opened 52 years ago. Now the convention center faces hard questions about its future.

Sun-Times file

Lakeside Center, the oldest building in the McCormick Place complex, has also been the quietest in recent years, seemingly overshadowed by the convention center’s larger and flashier additions to the west.

But as the Lakeside Center finds itself being eyeballed for possible reuse as a casino — and also needing $400 million in repairs and upgrades to remain in use as a convention center — it’s time to pay more attention to the flat-roofed, steel-and-glass building at 23rd Street and the lake, and for officials to focus on making important decisions regarding its future.

Lakeside Center still used

We want to be clear from the outset that this editorial neither endorses, nor slaps down, the 51-year-old Lakeside Center as one of five potential sites for a new casino. Our editorial on a casino site is for another day.

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But in response to the possibility of a casino being put there, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority issued a report about Lakeside Center last month that contained details that make it clear city and state officials should start talking about the building and its future now.

According to the report issued by MPEA CEO Larita Clark, there are 253 events scheduled for Lakeside Center between now and 2035.

This flies in the face of conventional thinking that Lakeside Center is hardly used — and thus expendable. Just six years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration cited the alleged disuse as a reason to wreck the building in an ill-fated attempt to construct the George Lucas Museum on the site.

In 2019, State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) tried to pass a bill authorizing the demolition of the above-ground portions of Lakeside Center for more open space; the demolition would have been paid for with a one-dollar surcharge on ridesharing fares. But the bill has gone nowhere.

If Lakeside Center were demolished or converted into another use, Clark’s report indicated the MPEA would need a replacement building that could cost as much as $1.7 billion.

Another complicating factor: Lakeside Center has a 30,000-square foot kitchen that is used to handle catering duties throughout the McCormick Place campus.

In addition, an assortment of mechanics, communications and chilled air lines that service all McCormick Place buildings are located in Lakeside Center and would have to be replaced if the building is removed or repurposed, according to MPEA.

Who foots the bill?

But what about the building’s expected $400 million repair bill? MPEA says the cost includes a new roof, parking structure repairs, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades. Interior work and exterior glass replacement are also included.

MPEA said the building is not falling in, at least, and the repairs can be done over a number of years.

The elephant in the room is that the MPEA covers its debt and operations with sales taxes collected from restaurants, hotels, auto rentals — even taxi rides from the airports.

In short, taxes from the city’s hospitality, tourism and restaurant industries pay the freight at Lakeside Center and McCormick Place. Yet those sectors are still weakened, thanks in no small part to the pandemic.

Last year, MPEA helped pay its bills by borrowing $15 million from the state. This year could be just as bad, raising the possibility that taxpayers could be on the hook for some portion of Lakeside Center’s repairs — or its demolition — unless the economy improves.

So Chicago has a public building that can’t be ripped down or reused without having to be replaced. Not to mention the structure’s architectural significance as a high-point in modernist architecture, the city’s stock-in-trade.

While the future of Soldier Field rightfully takes up a lot of oxygen in Chicago’s political and civic discourse, with the Chicago Bears leaning quite heavily toward moving to Arlington Heights, Lakeside Center — just four blocks away — looms just as large.

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