CHICAGO (CBS) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday announced a major step toward the sale of the James L. Thompson Center in the Loop.
The Illinois Department of Central Management Services plans to issue a request for proposals this week seeking technical and project management expertise so that the Thompson Center can be sold at the best value to the state.
“The Thompson Center is an inefficient work environment for the current demands of State business,” Pritzker said in a news release. “Today we are moving forward with the process of selling the facility and using the proceeds to help stabilize the pension system.”
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner announced in 2015 that he planned to ask state lawmakers to ask him to unload the Thompson Center. At the time, Rauner said the building needed $100 million in maintenance in the few years to come, and said selling the building and moving state workers elsewhere could save the state between $6 million and $12 million annually.
Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel blocked efforts to go ahead with the sale, insisting that the city must not be held financially responsible for rebuilding the Chicago Transit Authority Clark/Lake Blue Line subway station inside the building as part of any major redevelopment of the site.
In 2017, Rauner offered to dedicate all future property tax revenue from a Thompson Center sale to help fund the Chicago Public Schools – a proposal that Emanuel dismissed as a political stunt. Afterward, Emanuel said he would help rezone the Thompson Center property in exchange for a city pension deal. Rauner refused the offer.
A sale ultimately never ended up happening while Rauner was in office, but Pritzker in April signed a law authorizing the sale of the building.
The Helmut Jahn-designed building, 100 W. Randolph St., opened in May 1985 as the State of Illinois Center. It was renamed in 1993 to honor former Illinois Republican Gov. James R. Thompson.
The building has more 17 floors of office space, plus retail and restaurants on the lower level.
Thompson himself has famously called the building a “scrap heap.”
Rauner said four years ago that the open design of the glass and steel building, with a soaring 17-story atrium, makes it noisy and smelly from the food court in the basement. He said it also costs taxpayers a fortune to heat and cool.
Prtizker’s office agrees. Central Management Services noted that the main building enclosure system is made up of single-pain, non-thermally broken aluminum frames, which the office described as energy inefficient and not up to current standards.
Central Management Services also added that because of deferred maintenance and delayed capital products, restoration costs for the Thompson Center had ballooned to $300 million by 2016.
“Issuing this RFP moves the State a step closer to selling the property,” CMS Acting Director Janel Forde said in the release. “The property is inefficient and expensive to operate. The State can achieve significant cost savings by relocating to more optimized space.”
But while the state characterizes the Thompson Center as a cumbersome white elephant, some preservationists are not so eager to see it go.
The Thompson Center has been on the Landmarks Illinois list of the Most Endangered Historic Places for three years in a row.
Landmarks Illinois has called the Thompson Center an example of grandly-scaled postmodern architecture, saying its “voluminous atrium and curved facades make it a one-of-a-kind downtown building.” It noted that when the Thompson Center opened in 1985, the late Chicago Tribune architectural critic Paul Gapp wrote: “What we did not have in Chicago until Jahn designed the center was a contemporary vertical space of such splendid and theatrical dimensions.
Landmarks Illinois also noted Gapp was enamored with the the Thompson Center’s curved glass façades amid the vertical buildings around it: “In a city where architects so long worshiped the 90-degree angle and black curtain walls, the center’s asymmetry and multicolored skin appear as almost impudent nose-thumbing at the past.”
And ironically, in an April 1980 Chicago Tribune article published as the old Sherman House Hotel was demolished to make way for the Thompson Center, Howard Mandell of National Wrecking Company was quoted weighing in on the then-yet-to-be-built state office complex, saying: “It looks like all glass. It’d be fun to tear down.”
The Central Management Services news release on Tuesday did not take a position on, or even mention, the possible demolition or reuse of the Thompson Center. Landmarks Illinois earlier this year urged the public to call Gov. Pritzker to support the sale of the property, but to urge a requirement of retention and reuse of the building rather than demolition.