Rauner: Time to sell Thompson Center; Architect, former governor less than thrilled

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Need a full city block in Chicago’s Loop?

Gov. Bruce Rauner may have a deal for you.

Rauner, R-Winnetka, on Tuesday announced his plan to sell the James R. Thompson Center, the state’s massive office and retail building at 100 W. Randolph St.

Although home to about 2,200 state employees, the 17-story building of nearly 1.2 million square feet is expensive to heat and cool, needs about $100 million in repairs and is inefficient as an office complex, the governor said.

“We intend to close and sell the state of Illinois building, the James R. Thompson Center, move our people out into existing space … in Springfield and in the city of Chicago and put this building onto the market to be sold to a private developer,” the governor said.

The sale, Rauner said, would probably mean demolition of Thompson Center to be replaced by a “more impactful, positive, commercial office building and retail space.”

Rauner declined to say how much he believes the state can get for the property because his plan calls for public auction, but he described the location as among the best in the city and state.

“It’s attractive,” the governor said. “We can can get good value for taxpayers by selling this building and moving out.”

Even without cash from a sale, the state cannot afford to stay in the building, Rauner said.

“We could pay people to take this building from us and save a lot of taxpayer money,” he said.

The state’s cost to keep its people in the Thompson Center are two to three times that of putting them in comparable office space in the city or elsewhere in the state, Rauner said.

By moving out and using existing or even newly leased space, the state could save $6 million to $12 million per year, Rauner said.

Redeveloped and put to better use, the property could also generate as much as $20 million in tax revenue for the city and for Chicago Public Schools, Rauner said, adding that new construction could generate 8,000 short-term jobs.

“By any measure we’re high cost here and need to move,” Rauner said.

Rauner said the proposed sale has nothing to do with the state’s budget crisis or his “Turnaround Agenda” but simply represents good financial management.

He also said it’s not part of some larger plan to move more state jobs to Springfield.

The plan would need legislative approval, and the Republican governor said he’d spoken with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats. He described them as open to the idea.

Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan, said the speaker was aware the governor was announcing his plan and remains willing to listen.

That said, Brown added, there are questions still to be answered, including where workers would move to and to what ends the sale revenue and savings would be put.

Rauner said he’d also notified both Gov. James R. Thompson, for whom the center is named, and the building’s architect, Helmut Jahn.

Thompson, a Republican and the governor from 1977 to 1991, didn’t sound overjoyed about the idea in a short conversation with Illinois News Network.

“Well, as to Gov. Rauner’s proposal, I don’t have any comment because that’s up to him and the Legislature to determine the reason why deferred maintenance is so high,” Thompson said.

That maintenance was neglected during the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat in office from 2009 to 2015, Thompson said, “and that’s the problem.”

Quinn’s predecessor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, at one time essentially proposed a complex mortgaging scheme for the building, but that plan fell through.

Gov. Rauner on Tuesday declined to characterize the aesthetics or architectural significance of the Thompson Center, instead telling the media, “I’ll leave that for you to discuss.”

Architect Helmut Jahn criticized the state for not maintaining the building and said it should be repurposed, not demolished.

The architect suggested the building’s restaurants and retail outlets be upgraded and part of the building be converted for round-the-clock uses including a hotel, apartments and condominiums.

“Architectural history is full of examples where such repurposing has brought new life to structures like this,” he said in a prepared statement. “The building will only survive this way, and will become a landmark for the 21st Century.”

James R. Thompson Center

Originally: State of Illinois Center
Renamed: In 1993 to honor James R. Thompson, governor from 1977 to 1991
Architect: Helmut Jahn
Built: 1979 to 1985
Cost: About $172 million
Size: 17 stories tall, 1,193,163 square feet
Location: 100 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. Occupies the block bounded by LaSalle, Randolph, Clark and Lake streets
Materials: Steel, pink and gray granite, concrete
Houses: About 2,200 employees from dozens of state agencies, plus shops and restaurants
Called: Everything from “visionary” and “a strong, powerful and important statement ” to “The Cash Register” and an “impractical monstrosity”

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