Editorial: Love or hate it, Thompson Center has had its day
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America went big in the 1980s.
Big hair. Big budget deficits by government. Big, flamboyant designs for buildings.
That helps to explain how the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop came to be. Opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center under then-Gov. Thompson, the postmodern glass and steel behemoth belongs to a period known for excess.
Some see beauty in the 1.2 million square-foot structure with a stunning 16-story atrium. Others see a beast, with an interior that feels like the inside of a pinball machine. We see an architectural fascination, for better or worse, that sadly is too expensive and inefficient for Illinois taxpayers to maintain. And they might not have to do so for much longer.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan suggested Friday he is willing to go along with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s long-stated desire to sell the 1.2 million square-foot structure that sits on an entire city block.
In a statement, Madigan said he has directed a committee to consider legislation requested by Rauner to allow for the sale, lease or other redevelopment of the structure. It’s in the best interests of taxpayers to do this, even if it means — by far the most likely outcome — the building is sold to a developer who will tear it down to build a skyscraper.
Rauner’s administration says the state could net $220 million from a sale. We’re not sold on that figure. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, real estate experts say “the state would be hard-pressed to get even half of its estimated $220 million net proceeds in a sale, since a buyer would still face extensive demolition costs just to clear the site and start a new development.”
Mike Hoffman, director of the state’s department of Central Management Services, said an analysis by the Chicago-based real estate advisory firm rnc international makes him “comfortable” with the estimate. He added, “I personally believe it’s worth more.”
Chicago would stand to gain tens of millions in property-tax revenue if a private owner takes over. The state pays zilch in property tax on its buildings.
Among the issues for the Legislature to consider, Crain’s reports the state would have to negotiate a buyout of retail space in the Thompson Center. At what price? The state also would have to find office space for the 2,200 state employees who currently work in the Thompson Center. Hoffman said the state would look first at housing them in public buildings free of charge.
“We expect these numbers to be net neutral,” Hoffman said. “We will not exceed the cost of staying in the Thompson Center.”
There’s the rub: Over the long haul, it will cost the state a fortune to remain in the Thompson Center. Hoffman says the state pays about $25 a square foot in maintenance. The state owns the building and doesn’t pay property taxes, but the building is enormously inefficient. It isn’t cheap to cover the heating, cooling and electric bills.
The state also is staring at $326 million in deferred maintenance costs. The building needs major repairs. People who work there complain of leaks. Pretty much always have. Parts of the building are extremely cold; others are too hot. Nothing new there, either.
From the standpoint of efficiency, the structure was destined to fail from the beginning. During construction, builders were given the go-ahead to use cheap glass as costs skyrocketed. That has been a drain on heating and cooling costs. The building operates with a cooling and heating system that wasn’t up to the job when the building opened more than three decades ago.
Workers have complained about noise for years. A 16-story atrium is OK for a hotel, but not for a building where most people have to work. Noise travels.
Simply put, it isn’t a good place to work and never will be. And it’s not working out for the state.
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