Loop skyscrapers must be demolished to protect safety of Dirksen federal building

I respect the interest in historic preservation. But the Dirksen Courthouse and those who work in it have been targeted before, and security vulnerabilities around the courthouse must be addressed.

SHARE Loop skyscrapers must be demolished to protect safety of Dirksen federal building
The Consumers Building, 220 S State St., (left), and the Century Building (right), 202 S. State St., would be demolished by the federal government as part of a security plan for the neighboring Dirksen Federal Building. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Sen. Dick Durbin writes that the Consumers Building, 220 S State St., (left), and the Century Building (right), 202 S. State St., should be demolished as part of a security plan for the neighboring Dirksen Federal Building.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, located on Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago, is the nation’s largest federal courthouse. Designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the courthouse is home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (NDIL), the NDIL Bankruptcy Court, the NDIL U.S. Attorney’s Office and other federal agency offices.

Since opening in 1964, the courthouse has been a Loop landmark. However, the courthouse and the public servants who work there have also been, sadly, a target.

Ensuring the safety of the judges and employees who work in the Dirksen Courthouse must be a top priority in light of the acute security threats they face. After an individual was charged in 2004 and convicted of attempting to destroy the courthouse with a truck bomb, the federal General Services Administration acquired four adjacent buildings to create a security buffer zone. These buildings are so close to the courthouse that from the higher floors, it is easy to see directly into judges’ chambers and jury rooms.

These buildings have been vacant and unused for years, and have fallen into serious disrepair. In 2015, a block of State Street was shut down because bricks were falling from one of the buildings onto the sidewalk below. The buildings have deteriorated even further since then.

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Between 2015 and 2019, GSA considered transferring the buildings to private owners for redevelopment. However, multiple security assessments, including from the U.S. Marshals Service, ATF, FBI, Federal Protective Service and more made clear that the security risks were too great. The proposal was withdrawn.

Simply put, there has been no plan put forward for private redevelopment that has adequately addressed the security risks.

That’s why in 2018, the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit unanimously endorsed a plan to demolish the properties and create the originally-intended security buffer zone. And it’s why in 2020, the U.S. Marshals Service wrote that “[t]earing down the State Street Properties and re-purposing the land is long overdue.” Earlier this year, I helped obtain federal funding to enable GSA to carry this out after years of working on this issue.

A recent column by architecture critic Lee Bey opposed this plan, stating that “the building’s demolition would create an economic and pedestrian dead zone on State Street,” and prioritizing historic preservation above the security concerns posed by the vacant buildings.

But those security concerns are real. Federal courthouses and those who work there are targets. That is why the federal government acquired these buildings in the first place.

I respect the interest in historic preservation. I introduced legislation to protect Chicago’s Pullman District, helped establish the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Central Illinois, and have been working to designate the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site as a National Historic Park. But we can’t risk jeopardizing safety.

The Dirksen Courthouse and those who work in it have been targeted before, and security vulnerabilities around the courthouse must be addressed. Bey’s column says that the demolition of these buildings would create a “dead zone” on State Street. Respectfully, in the eyes of security experts, it is the status quo that creates a greater risk of death around the Dirksen Courthouse.

Dick Durbin is a U.S. senator from Illinois.

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