Eye On Illinois: With Thompson Center, state failed to capitalize on public investment

Few average Illinoisans have direct experience with the downtown Chicago real estate market. Throw in the usual excesses of state government and the numbers become almost incomprehensible.

Such are the realities of the state’s attempt to sell the James R. Thompson Center. The 17-story building, opened in 1985, occupies an entire city block in the Loop. The state uses about 780,000 of the 1.2 million square feet. It’s part of a government hub with city, county and court buildings adjoining three corners of the Randolph and Clark streets intersection.

Although Gov. JB Pritzker and the Department of Central Management Services issued requests for purchase proposals Monday, plans to sell the structure go back about 20 years — about half the building’s age.

About four years ago I wrote a column looking at then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s hopes of collecting $300 million by selling the building. Even then the projected cost of deferred maintenance was $326 million. Monday’s RFP announcement used a similar figure, but estimated the bill could jump $200 million in just five years.

In May 2017, then-state Rep. Nick Sauer, R-Barrington, co-sponsored legislation to “scrap the outdated and inefficient building,” he tweeted, adding “the value is in the land.” Michael Hoffman, then acting CMS director, cited a market analysis showing “the CTA station on site is a powerful asset to a future redevelopment, with a likelihood that developers will have a desire to incorporate the station into their design.”

Hoffman called the potential sale “a win for everyone” and Sauer pegged it “a no brainer.” On April 5, 2019, Pritzker signed Senate Bill 886, intended to get the building sold through a sealed bid process within 24 months. Today starts the 26th.

There hasn’t been total inertia. The RFP marks a significant step. The state bought a West Loop building in January, spending $73.25 million while projecting an annual savings of $20 million after relocating offices from leased spaces elsewhere. CMS wants to reduce the state’s real estate holdings by 30% — a reminder that sometimes smaller government means literally less physical space.

In 2017 part of the holdup was a blame triangle: Rauner said Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan was obstructing. Madigan insisted lawmakers were pursuing a deal. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel accused Rauner of complicating negotiations. None remain in the picture, but the complexities of city zoning rules remain unchanged.

No one should celebrate a sale without acknowledging the state’s role in the Thompson Center’s rapid deterioration, set into motion during initial construction. Praise for new property taxes balance against losses as the state acquires other private spaces.

This significant failure to capitalize on a public investment, a multi-million dollar mistake, is further fuel for public distrust of elected officials.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.