Widely considered unsightly by those who see it from the outside, and dysfunctional by those who work on the inside, there was little surprise when Governor Bruce Rauner yesterday announced he want to offload the Thompson Center (100 West Randolph Street).
The governor argues that selling the building makes financial sense for a number of reasons. It’s an expensive building to run; the Loop real estate market is hot enough that someone might actually want to buy it; and state employees have been complaining for close to a generation that they hate working there.
Aesthetics aside, the building is in need of repair. It’s had an estimated $100 million worth of maintenance deferred over the years as successive political dynasties have chosen to illegally line their own pockets instead of being proper stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
There is speculation that because of the building’s acute physical needs that any sale would be primarily for the land. A developer would be pretty much expected to tear down the glass and steel bird cage and put up a massive tower suitable for its downtown core location.
Not so fast, says one Helmut Jahn. The starchitect came out swinging with a one-two punch yesterday.
First, he placed blame for the building’s current atrocious condition on former governor Pat Quinn, saying that if the Quinn administration had been good stewards of the building, then a tear-down wouldn’t be in the cards.
Second, he thinks that razing the Thompson Center is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He says that from a zoning standpoint, the property has the potential to support both the current building and a new mixed-use tower. That would preserve the design he worked so hard on while also providing cashflow to keep the whole thing from getting crufty again in the future. Here is Mr. Jahn’s statement:
“The original vision of Governor Jim Thompson and the architect Helmut Jahn to make the building a symbolfor the openness and transparency of the state government, an active urban center in the city, and a lively urban and public place has not been upheld by the administrations that followed. The building has not been maintained or repaired, the retail lacks style and attraction. Governor Rauner has announced the state will sell and vacate it.
The best way to save the building, and to improve it, is to repurpose it. This requires upgrades to the retail and foodservice, marketing the large floor plates to innovative tech-companies, adding parking. For the unused FAR of close to 1 million square feet adding 24 hour uses, a hotel, apartments or condominiums, in short, making it the most exciting place in the city, with around the clock activity.
The architectural history is full of examples where such repurposing has brought new life to structures like this. This will require some changes be made. The building will only survive this way, and will become a landmark for the 21st Century.
To be sure, the Thompson Center is the kind of science fiction-looking office environment that tech companies love. And its food court plus open office spaces allow the kind of coincidental synergy that Silicon Valley firms often look for when shopping for office space. But it’s still a question of whether the existing building can be upgraded to suit today’s technology needs.
Even if it is possible, it’ll happen on someone else’s watch. As far as the governor is concerned, a Thompson Center sale is a fait accompli.