Illinois delays selling beleaguered Thompson Center in Chicago

Illinois delays selling beleaguered Thompson Center in Chicago

Illinois is again delaying the sale of the Thompson Center state office building in Chicago, which was neglected until the state could no longer afford to fix it. The state’s new delay is to take advantage of zoning changes and in the hope office space prices rebound.

Aug. 16 was supposed to be the final day Illinois would accept bids for the James R. Thompson Center, with the sale of the state office building in downtown Chicago closing by Dec. 31.

Now, Thompson Center bidding will continue until Oct. 8, with a new closing set for April 2022.

State leaders since 2017 have looked at selling the office building, repeatedly counting $200 million to $300 million from that unconsummated sale to balance state budgets on paper. In the meantime, the state has allowed skylights to leak and the facilities to decay so there now are over $325 million in repairs needed.

The James R. Thompson Center – originally named the State of Illinois Center upon completion in 1985 – has served as a secondary state capitol for Illinois in the heart of Chicago. State offices employing over 2,200 people occupy 60% of the Thompson Center’s 1.5 million square feet.

The Thompson Center should be an attractive property. The Clark/Lake CTA stop for the “L” has an entrance at the Thompson Center. Also, Chicago’s underground walkway – the Pedway – runs into and out of the Thompson Center. The Thompson Center’s postmodern design won awards for architect Helmut Jahn with its sleek glass exterior and an interior with a large, skylit atrium that exposes all 17 stories.

But the cost of fixing years of neglected maintenance have turned the building into an albatross. Springfield’s increasing pension obligations are consuming over 25% of the state budget and squeezing out items such as building repairs. In April 2019, state lawmakers gave up on the building and passed a bill allowing the property to be sold.

The sale is now delayed for two developments.

First, the Chicago City Council’s new zoning regulations will allow developers to replace the Thompson Center with a new office tower with 2 million square feet of space, much larger than the current building.

Second, state leaders may hope a later bidding date will give Chicago’s office real estate market more time to recover, according to Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business. Office real estate prices lag pre-pandemic numbers, as many businesses remain remote.

As the state continues to accept bids on the Thompson Center, state employees are vacating the building, along with other downtown offices, and moving to a new building in the West Loop.

“Selling the property provides a unique opportunity to maximize taxpayer savings, create thousands of union jobs, generate millions of dollars in real estate taxes to benefit the City of Chicago and spur economic development,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during a news conference about the building sale.

There remains a lesson in the Thompson Center’s decay and likely demolition of an architectural landmark: Illinois can keep spending greater amounts of money on public pensions while still failing to stop a $144 billion debt from growing, or it can get its house in order.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the bid deadlines for the Thompson Center.

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