The James R. Thompson Center, with its steel frame, red and blue accents, open atrium, and soaring (but leaky) domed skylight, has been controversial since the spaceship-esque structure landed in the Loop in 1985.
A new law signed Friday by Gov. J.B. Pritkzer will add a new layer of controversy to the building’s history: The law paves the way for Illinois to sell the building.
“Selling the Thompson Center is long overdue and will allow the state to leverage one of our biggest assets to help stabilize the pension system. Unlike the previous administration, the governor is serious about responsibly using the proceeds of the sale, and he looks forward to a deal being negotiated to benefit taxpayers. After years of delays, it’s time to see this through,” Pritkzer spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said Friday in an emailed statement.
Historic preservation groups like Preservation Chicago have listed the “iconic” building on endangered buildings lists, and the Thompson Center’s architect has lobbied to keep it from being demolished.
Per the law, the sale must be completed within two years, and the purchaser must “enter into an agreement with the City of Chicago and CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) to maintain operations of the Clark & Lake station.”
Government employees based in the Thompson Center (that includes all constitutional officers and legislative leaders and their staffs) will be relocated to the Michael A. Bilandic Building blocks away and “other under-utilized, state-owned or rented facilities,” according to a release sent Friday by Pritkzer’s press office.
The first steps: Within four to six week, the Pritzker administration is to draft qualifications for interested purchasers and will renew negotiations with the city of Chicago on zoning and the CTA stop.
Pritkzer’s action may be fresh, but the notion of selling the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center, which occupies the block bordered by Clark, Randolph, LaSalle and Lake streets, is not.
It was a top priority of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who at one time believed Illinois could net as much as $300 million by selling the iconic building, which he criticized as smelly, loud and overdue for routine maintenance. (Even though the current state budget was balanced in part by banking on the sale, it never came to fruition, in part as talks between Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel fell through.)
The law itself dates back to Rauner’s time as governor.
The last time legislators voted on it was May 31, 2017 – when Rauner was still in the governor’s office.
But Illinois Senate President John Cullerton used a legislative procedure known to put an immediate hold on the bill, only lifting the “motion to reconsider” on Jan. 9 of this year – less than a week before Pritkzer’s inauguration – essentially allowing Pritkzer, rather than Rauner, to decide its fate.
Pritzker has proposed transferring state assets – such as, potentially, the Thompson Center, state lottery or the tollway – to Illinois’ pension systems as a way to bulk up their funding. His press office said transfer of the Thompson Center is still “on the table.” A task force studying the asset transfer idea is set to make recommendations this summer.
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