The James R. Thompson Center, just after noon on a weekday, is the liveliest of the government buildings clustered in the North Loop.
The Daley Center has an active plaza, but its lobby is dead serious as people make their way through security checkpoints before hitting the elevators. At the City Hall/County Building lobby, things barely get above a whisper as workers, officials and regular folk pass through.
But the Thompson Center bustles by comparison. The atrium is still a spectacular indoor space. The food court is active. Workers and visitors launch the glassy elevators to reach the state offices in the 17-story building. There is sound. There is life.
Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to get rid of all that, having announced in October that he wants to vacate state workers from the dog-eared 30 year old building and auction the site to a developer who’d likely knock it down and replace it with a privately-owned commercial high-rise.
Perhaps Rauner’s right that the Thompson Center’s days as a state government complex should be over. But instead of guiding us down a path that can weigh options and determine the highest and best use for the site, Rauner’s only card is a hasty and undercooked plan that would mean the loss of one of the finest—and most used–indoor public spaces in the state. And if the misstep is too big, it could threaten the North Loop.
Built in 1985 and designed by architect Helmut Jahn, the Thompson Center has been famously troubled from the start. Its glassy, bulbous look and significant cost overruns put it on rocky public footing. And as if in penance for its hefty cost, the building has been furnished and maintained on the cheap ever since.
But it’s a one-of-a-kind piece of architecture with vital uses and functions that can’t be underestimated. The complex supports the Clark/Lake El stop, which is the second busiest in the city. The building connects to the underground pedway system. There is a semi-circular 600-seat theater, and Illinois artists adorn office walls with one of the state’s largest collections of contemporary art. Once the demolition ball swings, these public assets are gone from this site forever.
With this much going for it, the Rauner Administration would have been better served by issuing a public request for proposals, inviting design and construction teams to submit plans to restore and reuse the building in a way that unlocks more of its civic value.
What might this building be, if others are allowed to help choose its fate? Could it be a boutique hotel? A food emporium? Or a center of arts and culture?
Could the Thompson Center become a second City Hall? The city rents office spaces throughout downtown and shells out millions in rent for the privilege. That’s money and uses that could revive the Thompson Center.
It’s all worth a look.
Because without some kind of deliberative process, the public is left with Rauner’s auction scenario. And his team’s due-diligence was so embarrassingly lacking, before Rauner’s announcement, the administration didn’t consider the shops in the 70,000 square foot food court have 19 years remaining on their leases.
That embarrassing lack of homework doesn’t bode well, history tell us. The former Chicago Mercantile Exchange at Washington and Franklin was a functioning and privately owned 1920s office tower when its owners wrecked it in 2002 in hopes of building a taller and more profitable structure in its place. Almost 14 years later, the site is still vacant.
And steps away from the Thompson Center sits Block 37, which was abandoned and vacant for 20 years before new construction finally materialized in the 2000s.
The Thompson Center deserves a better fate. And the taxpayers who finance and maintain this building deserve a better shake as well.