This op-ed was originally published in Crain's Chicago Business on May 17, 2017.
The debate around what to do with the James R. Thompson Center continues to swirl.Tensions between the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are a game of hot potato regarding who pays for what if the distinct Helmut Jahn-designed building is saved or sold.
Resolution of these key issues must be grounded by one truth: redevelopment of the Thompson Center is a historic opportunity for wholesale reimagination of an entire city block in the heart of the Loop. Because it uniquely features a major transit hub, is a block away from the Riverwalk and theater district, and can accommodate a wide array of uses, it can be a financial win-win for the city and state.
As an organization that's been guiding such big decisions for more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council is excited about similar once-in-a-generation opportunities like the Old Post Office and the Finkl Steel site along the North Branch. Even more than these privately owned sites, a publicly owned site like the Thompson Center compels a high level of scrutiny to ensure the highest possible public benefit. Of course this close examination must extend to any sale or lease price.
Potential benefits to Illinois include occupancy cost savings and far more functional office space, while Chicago stands to gain tax revenue, new resources into the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and an appealing new neighbor for City Hall.
MPC warns that we can't afford a transaction that presents this possibility of long-term unique benefits to become bogged down. While we are all painfully aware of the broader political climate, we are doing our part to spark a robust and open dialogue.
What would a healthy public process look like? Well, the state of Illinois, in close coordination with the city, would seek input on the best possible mix of uses, and then determine the building design, density, massing and other variables, to achieve that. It would be a deliberate process that would lead to better results.
We've always found it useful to begin a contentious process like this with guiding principles. We offer three criteria for consideration:
Transit, transit, transit
Any redevelopment of the site must enhance transportation. The Clark and Lake station complex serves six of eight CTA lines and is, simply, one of the most significant transit assets in Chicago, not only for city residents, but for suburban commuters and visitors. Keeping the stations open and unimpeded during any deconstruction and reconstruction should be a priority. And while we are at it, let's make this combined elevated and subway station far easier to navigate. Possible improvements include accessibility upgrades, additional bicycle facilities, and more intuitive signs. Station enhancements should go hand-in-hand with improvements to the city's pedway system, sidewalks and bike lanes.
Additionally, given existing maintenance backlogs plus the enormous value of high-volume foot traffic across the CTA system, the costs of demolition and reconstruction of the Clark and Lake stations should be incorporated into any development financing.
Location, location, location … for state public services
The rationale for the Thompson Center's central location is to provide easy-to-access services to Chicago residents and suburban residents who work downtown. As redevelopment of the site is contemplated, transit-served and convenient locations for those services must be top criteria. All options should be evaluated on their benefits for the state, city and taxpayers.
The Thompson Center is also home to many state offices and staff. They, too, benefit from the convenient location and transit access, as well as proximity to other government offices to facilitate intergovernmental coordination. Any assessment of the costs and benefits of a redevelopment of the site should take into account the impact of relocation of these state employees.
Simplest transactions not always the best
The most straightforward transaction would be for the city to rezone the Thompson Center site, allowing the state to sell the building to a private developer. Already, suggestions have surfaced for a mix of uses, including retail, office and hotel.
The uniquely high-stakes factors here, though, suggest the state needs to be more strategic. Must Illinois sell the building in order to receive the financial relief it is seeking? Could a public-private partnership allow the state to lease the majority of the site, earning a steady, long-term revenue stream? It's possible. The answer in part depends on the goals identified in a public process.
We need much more discussion on public benefit and far less on political gamesmanship. A more patient and transparent urban planning process grounded in clear guiding principles will ensure the best outcome on the only block up for grabs in the middle of Chicago's Loop. We could all use the caliber of project that the opportunity and the citizens of Illinois deserve. It could be a win in this toxic political environment.