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Who wants to live in the Thompson Center?

by Meg White

Who wants to live in the Thompson Center?

Rendering courtesy of JAHN architects

Could the James R. Thompson Center work as a mixed-use hotel and co-living apartment building? According to the civic center’s architect, Helmut Jahn, the answer has to be yes. In a new proposal for reusing the building that’s been all but placed on the sales block by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Jahn said part of his reasoning for insisting on reuse is the fact that the current market would not support the creation of the same type of structure again.

“I am making this plea, not only because I want the Thompson Center preserved. I am convinced that, in the profit-focused real estate market of today, there isn’t any hope of replacing the building,” Jahn wrote in an open letter included in the proposal released by his office. “Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good.”

Known as the State of Illinois Center before being renamed for the state’s longest-serving governor in 1993, the central Loop property has served as a sort of secondary capitol building since it opened in 1985. Last spring, Pritzker signed into law an amendment to state procurement law that would allow for the sale of the massive postmodern structure.

Jahn and others insist the building’s 17-story atrium — originally created to symbolically remove the walls between the people and their government — is a treasure worth preserving. The architect’s current proposal suggested tearing down the doors of the building “so the atrium becomes a public place with upgraded retail and restaurants.” Jahn noted that the lower floors could offer up to 60,000 square feet for “flexible tech-offices” with a mix of “hotel and co-living apartments with terraces facing the atrium” above. He also suggested using the sunny atrium to grow “trees and climbing vines, which will grow well in this protected in-outside environment.”

This isn’t the first time Jahn has proposed repurposing the building. In 2015, he suggested a hotel-condo combo could fill up the much disused structure, though in his current proposal he admitted that the time may have passed for such a solution.

Still, Jahn warned that tearing the center down would result in “Block 37 all over again,” referring to the many failed attempts over several decades to fill the perennially vacant downtown parcel known as 108 North State Street that’s now occupied by an urban shopping mall: “A demolition and replacement would not only take a long time but seeks high density without considering public benefits. We need not more bigger buildings but buildings which improve the public space.” 

Preservation Chicago voiced similar concerns in its opposition to the idea that the Thompson Center meet a wrecking ball. The group named the building in its roundup of Chicago’s seven most endangered buildings for the fourth time in their recently released 2020 list and cited the open-air quality of the building as a real treasure to be maintained.

“There is concern the building will be sold to a developer seeking to demolish it and maximize height in a newly constructed building on the site. The scale of the Thompson Center and its vast, open plaza and public interior atrium spaces add to Chicagoans’ quality of life by allowing light and air into a dense section of the Loop. If sold to the highest bidder, these benefits are almost certain to be lost,” read the group’s entry on the building from the 2020 endangered list.

While the group has said it isn’t opposed to the sale and understands the pressure to unload the property due to Illinois’ overall financial distress, Preservation Chicago is still pushing “the state to require the next owner to maintain the building’s character” in some way, rather than viewing the Thompson Center as a complete teardown. 

Walkscore ranks the Thompson Center’s address as both a walker’s and rider’s paradise, situated as it is at a major Chicago Transit Authority hub. The group also noted that the area is pretty bikeable, and that it has one of the lowest crime rates in the city. 

There’s also plenty of evidence that the area can command high rents. Apartments at Century Tower, kitty-corner to the Thompson Center, start at more than $2,000 for 1-bedroom units that are less than 600 square feet, and rents are similar (though square footage is a bit higher) at the Randolph Tower just west of the site.

Still, Chicago has long had a love-hate relationship with the postmodern people’s palace, which has struggled to maintain commercial tenants and appears dated to some. But Jahn closed his letter with a note of hope: “Miracles and dreams can become real.”

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