Two potential buyers have submitted proposals to purchase the James R. Thompson Center, the state of Illinois’ controversial Loop headquarters, officials said Friday.
The names of the bidders and their plans for the future of the 1.2 million-square-foot glass-and-steel structure designed by famed architect Helmut Jahn were not disclosed. State law allows officials to keep the proposals under wraps until a winning bidder is selected.
Facing an April 5 deadline to sell a building admired by preservationists but reviled by many state workers and amateur architecture critics, the Department of Central Management Services is aiming to choose a buyer by the end of the year and sign a purchase agreement by February.
The bids, which were originally due in August before the state pushed back the deadline, come a week after the State Historic Preservation Office submitted a nomination to the National Park Service to list the Thompson Center on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since taking office in 2019, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been trying to unload the aging 17-story office building, something his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, pushed for years but never got done.
That didn’t stop lawmakers from counting on $300 million in revenue from the proposed sale in the final state budget of Rauner’s single term — a gimmick that was papered over by a surprise tax windfall in April 2019.
Whether the building, named for former Republican Gov. James R. “Big Jim” Thompson, will fetch anywhere near that price is an open question. It officially hit the market in May.
Pritzker has proposed using revenue from the sale to give a boost to the state’s severely underfunded pension systems.
While the Thompson Center has inspired strong opinions since opening in 1985, its location in the heart of the Loop is a selling point for developers.
Chicago was in the midst of a commercial real estate boom when Pritzker signed a bill in April 2019 authorizing the sale, but then came the coronavirus pandemic, which sharply drove down demand for downtown commercial space. The vacancy rate in the central business district now is at a record 19%, according CoStar Group, a real estate data firm.
To the chagrin of preservationists, who consider the building an iconic example of postmodern architecture, state officials have said they have no preference whether new owners tear down the existing structure, which officials say would cost $325 million to repair.
In June, a state advisory panel voted to nominate the building to the National Register of Historic Places over objections from the Department of Central Management Services and the State Historic Preservation Office. The state agencies argued in documents that the building is not a great example of postmodern architecture, that Jahn was not a premier practitioner of the style and that the Thompson Center was not one of his best works.
Still, the Historic Preservation Office went forward with submitting the nomination, commissioned by preservation group Landmarks Illinois, which long has included the Thompson Center on its list of the state’s most endangered historic places.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which includes the preservation office, did not respond to a request for comment.
The National Park Service still must review the nomination, and a decision to add the building to the national register wouldn’t guarantee its safety from the wrecking ball. But supporters say it could aid the effort by making the property eligible for federal preservation tax credits covering up to 20% of rehabilitation costs.
Two voices that are noticeably absent from the current debate are those of the building’s namesake and its architect.
Thompson died in August 2020 at age 84, while Jahn, 81, was killed in May in a cycling accident near St. Charles.
“The James R. Thompson Center was a building that never lived up to his creative genius,” Pritzker said after his death. “That is to say, I think you’re aware that he felt that he — I think he used the word cheapening of the building while there was design engineering being done back in the mid-’80s. And so it’s not the greatest example of his work.”
Within weeks of Jahn’s death, the City Council approved a zoning change that would allow one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers to be built on the site of or next to the existing building.
Whoever buys the building will have to negotiate with the city and the CTA over maintaining operation of the Clark/Lake station that occupies part of the building.
The state had previously indicated it also would be up to the new owner to negotiate with the companies that hold a master lease for retail space in the building’s glass-enclosed atrium and lower-level food court, which doesn’t expire until 2034. But in a response to questions from potential bidders, the state said it plans on “providing title to the purchaser free and clear of any existing leases and tenants.”
The state is moving forward, meanwhile, with long-term plans to relocate much of its downtown workforce.
The state in January paid $73.3 million to buy a 17-story, 429,316-square-foot Near West Side office building that was previously home to regional offices of PepsiCo.
Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said Friday that the state will have moved more than 1,000 employees from the Thompson to the new building by the end of October. The building eventually is expected to accommodate about 1,500 state workers, Abudayyeh said.
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