4 Experts Talk Re-Developing the Thompson Center
Speculation over the future of the Thompson Center has run high ever since Gov. Bruce Rauner announced plans to explore auctioning the building last week. Its architect, Helmut Jahn, said the building still has some life left. But three of the four experts we spoke with believe the Thompson Center is long past its useful life.
But everyone agrees about one thing: the building isn't properly utilized. What Jahn and former Gov. Jim Thompson intended to be a symbol of government transparency instead is an example of Springfield gridlock. The 17-story building has $100M in deferred maintenance, which Rauner says makes the Thompson Center not worth saving.
NGKF Landlord Advisory Services managing director Karin Kraai respects Chicago architecture (she improved the Wrigley Building’s occupancy rate from 17% to 85% in two years in partnership with Zeller Realty, while preserving the building’s landmark status), but she tells us the Thompson Center reflects where Chicago was in the mid-'80s. Karin believes the site should be torn down and redeveloped to benefit the city more, and says whoever steps up to buy the site would have to create a new energy there. She envisions a twin tower development, with hotel and residential on the east, office space on the west, parking and retail, an open space with public art (that being one of the Thompson Center’s greatest legacies), and emphasizing the site’s use as a transit hub. Karin suggests a new buyer could open a competition to architects presenting their visions for the site.
SVN Auctionworks president Diana Peterson says the opportunity to build a new ground-up development on the Thompson Center site is too good to pass up. The site takes up an entire city block, with up to 2M SF of developable space in the heart of the theater district, and walking distance from Millennium and Grant parks. But an auction could be tricky. Diana says any auction for the Thompson Center would need total transparency, as it’s a government building. That means no sealed bids should be allowed, and an online auction component should use a national platform with registered and vetted bidders. Diana adds that 90% of online auctions are not transparent, and often bidders find themselves unknowingly playing against the auctioneers up to the reserve.
Diana tells us prospective buyers need to account for the Thompson Center’s retail rights, currently held by a JV of Winthrop Realty Trust and Marc Realty. The JV controls the rights to 70k SF of retail space, and a new owner would have to consider buying out those rights, promising to transfer the rights to a new development, and buying out the retail tenants or promising them space in a new building. Diana also believes the best use for the site would be a twin tower, mixed-use situation, with one building containing office space, the other residential, and ground-level retail.
Fitzgerald Associates president Mike De Rouin says the Thompson Center’s deferred maintenance does have a high cost, if a new owner wanted to reposition the building, and it would take someone with a bold vision. Having walked through the center several times recently, he doesn’t see why the building can’t be redeveloped and says it could hold a variety of mixed-use options, including a hotel, an indoor amusement park or a shopping mall, or it could hold an Aragon Ballroom-sized concert venue, which he feels is lacking downtown. Mike says building a new facility will require a lot of effort, time and expense.
Mike says the Thompson Center’s original HVAC system was ahead of its time, but never worked properly. The atrium and offices were always too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Modern technologies and advancements could keep the building’s climate constant. If a repositioning of the Thompson Center included residential or a hotel atop the building, Mike says the glass curtain wall could be changed to allow outside ventilation, which could be a more cost-effective way to cool the building.
MB Real Estate VP Kelsey Scheive says the time is right for the state to consider selling the Thompson Center, given the scorching market for downtown office properties. She says that downtown is now a 24/7 destination and a repositioned Thompson Center, or a new development, should reflect that vibrancy. She says that any new development should incorporate Jahn’s original vision, making it an attraction for the city. Kelsey adds considering the Thompson Center as an alternate site for the Lucas Museum (an option proposed by the Tribune's Blair Kamin) should not be discounted.