4 Steps to Make the 115-Story Thompson Center Replacement a Reality

Late last week a group of rural state legislators released some sketches showing a shiny, twisting 115-story skyscraper replacing the neglected Thompson Center at 100 West Randolph Street.  Immediately, skyscraper nerds from Forest Park to Park Forest wet themselves.

Drawing of The Thompson Tower (thats what we're calling it) (Via Crain's Chicago Business)

Drawing of The Thompson Tower (thats what we’re calling it) (Via Crain’s Chicago Business)

The document that made the Thompson Center possible back in 1981. It was only nine pages. These days, we've seen PDs run up to 350 pages.

The document that made the Thompson Center possible back in 1981. It was only nine pages. These days, we’ve seen PDs run up to 350 pages.

The details of the Thompson Tower are a 1,700-foot-tall mixed-use building with a hotel, residences, and an observation deck.  An alternate plan calls for several smaller-scale skyscrapers.

But what are the chances of it actually happening?  Let’s weigh the pro’s and the con’s:

  • Pro: The hands behind the design are AS+GGAdrian Smith and Gordon Gill.  They’re like the Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of the Chicago architecture world.  You don’t get people like that to put pen to paper unless there’s some seriously serious people talking seriously serious.
  • Con: The state government is involved.
  • Pro: According to Crain’s Chicago Business, a study by RMC International found no scenario where keeping the existing building makes financial sense.
  • Con: The legislature blew off the last attempt to deal with the Thompson Center, and for the most part doesn’t give a crap about Chicago’s problems.
  • Pro: Everyone in state government hates the existing building
  • Con: Worse, it’s rural state legislators talking about this, who likely are more experienced with animal husbandry than urban planning.  We’re talking Farmer’s Only people laying out the future for a Tinder neighborhood.
  • Pro: Chicago’s got some skyscraper momentum in the last ten years. From the 92-story Trump Tower to the 93-story Vista tower to the very sizable skyscrapers going up along Grant Park.  Plus a ton of infill.
  • Con: The food court has another couple of decades to go on its lease.
  • Pro: Everyone has a price. The food court can be bought out.
  • Con: You’ve got a subway line running beneath the northern boundary of the construction zone.
  • Pro: It is prime real estate.  And if ever there was a block that deserved that level of density, 100 West Randolph is it.
  • Con: Chicago hasn’t been able to reach the 100-story mark in 47 years.  The last time it happened, 50% of you weren’t even born, there wasn’t an internet, and the Russians were trying to undermine our… oh, wait.  Nevermind.

The bottom line, though, is that it’s not impossible.  All that’s needed is political will, and to make sure everybody makes some money.  It’s done all the time in Asia, and even occasionally in New York.  Here’s how you make it happen:

  1. State sells the Thompson Center to the CTA for $1.  Yes, just a buck. Hold your wad, downstaters.
  2. Right now the block is zoned for an F.A.R. of 8.0.  The city changes the parameters of PD270 to allow up to three million square feet of development.  Developers start drooling.  Architects trim their eyebrows in anticipation.
  3. The CTA leases the property to a real estate development company for a period of 99 years, or 150 years, or something similar.  Leases like that are done all the time in Chicago (for example, between the Archdiocese of Chicago and Northwestern).
  4. Real estate developer develops massive tower to utilize every last square foot the city will allow, collects huge rents, pays rent to the CTA.  Property remains, ostensibly, in public hands.
  • Politicians are happy: They get to say they saved the state a third of a billion dollars by crossing the Thompson Center’s deferred maintenance off the books.
  • Real estate developers are happy: They get a century or so to collect massive rents on the city’s most prime office space.
  • Mayor is happy: Trophy tower puts Chicago back on the global architecture map.
  • Unions are happy: Construction jobs out the wazoo.
  • CTA is happy: CTA gets rent from the real estate developer that can be used for things like personnel and training and other things that federal grants usually won’t cover.
  • Public is happy: Improved CTA.  Crappy building removed.  40% more awesome skyline.  Cost to taxpayers: $1.

Our prediction: It’ll never happen.

Location: 100 West Randolph Street, The Loop

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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