by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) -- Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced the state has begun negotiations to sell the Thompson Center for $70 million, in a bid to preserve the iconic 17-story building designed by the late architect Helmut Jahn.
Selling the Thompson Center has been a priority for Pritzker since he took office in 2019, and the governor officially put out a request for bidders in May.
On Wednesday, the governor announced he had chosen a proposal from developer Michael Reschke, chairman of Prime Group, to purchase the Thompson Center and preserve it as an office building.
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The decision is a win for preservationists, who had feared the sale of the Thompson Center would lead to its demolition.
Reschke's proposal for the Thompson Center includes a $70 million up-front payment to the state, and a commitment to preserve and substantially renovate the building.
The governor's office said the sale of the Thompson Center will save the state approximately $20 million a year in operating and maintenance costs. The redevelopment plan for the building is expected to result in thousands of construction jobs; as well as new property tax revenue for Cook County, the city of Chicago, and its sister agencies.
"The State can no longer afford to support unsustainable costs for the maintenance and operation of the JRTC or delay its disposition," said Janel Forde, director of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which oversees the building. "This strategic public-private partnership allows us to retain a smaller presence in the property while partnering with an established development team to transfer significant financial risk and responsibility for the much-needed capital improvements at the JRTC to a third-party."
The governor's office said the deal is expected to close in Summer 2022.
The Thompson Center long has been home to the governor's Chicago office, as well as Chicago offices of multiple state agencies. But the Pritzker administration began moving state employees who worked there to a new office building at 555 W. Monroe St. earlier this year. The governor's Thompson Center office is still open.
The 17-story building at 100 W. Randolph St. has long been criticized as an overly expensive and inefficient home for state government offices in Chicago.
When it opened in 1985, the great massive open atrium inside and its floors of open offices were meant to pay tribute to transparency in government – the inspiration for architect Helmut Jahn – but the building's design made it extremely expensive to operate.
With its single-paned glass walls providing insufficient insulation in summer and winter, the Thompson Center costs taxpayers a fortune to heat and cool.
Drainage issues led to the rusty deterioration of some of the building's pillars, and as stone cracked and fell, unsightly scaffolding was placed around the building for extended periods.
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 signed a law in 2019 authorizing the sale of the building. That law was later amended to push back the timeline for the sale, due to the pandemic.
The building opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center. It was renamed in 1993 to honor former Gov. James Thompson, who himself has called the building a "scrap heap."
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. That annual list was suspended last year due to the pandemic, and Landmarks Illinois is expected to release its 2021 list later this week.
Last year, Pritzker's office selected Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors as the project manager for the planned sale of the glass and steel office building designed by architect Helmut Jahn, and began negotiations with Ernst & Young on a contract to oversee the sale.
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."
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