Chicago, a city heralded for its fine architecture, is in a quandary as to what the future holds for the James R. Thompson Center, one of its iconic buildings.
Fiscally-minded Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to sell the glassy 17-story office building because the state of Illinois is broke and can’t afford to maintain it.
Designed by world-renowned architect Helmut Jahn, the space-age postmodern structure may need $100 million in renovation. Some experts, including Gov. Rauner, say the buyer would likely demolish it and build a skyscraper showcasing up to 2 million square feet of space on the fantastic 2.9-acre Loop site.
Apparently fiscally inept Illinois had no money for upkeep of the state office building since it was completed 1987. Reports say it has a leaky roof, tattered carpeting, and cooking odors waft upwards from the basement food court. State employees who occupy the offices also complain that its interior is noisy, too hot in summer and too cold in winter.
Ironically, the Thompson Center controversy is timed perfectly to clash with “Open House Chicago,” last weekend’s citywide architectural love fest. The October 17-18 event, organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, opened the doors to 200 noteworthy buildings across Chicago—from the Gross Point Lighthouse in north suburban Evanston to the famed Hotel Florence in Pullman on the Far South Side.
The thought of razing Helmut Jahn’s landmark structure has architecture lovers up in arms. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote: “Handing down a death sentence for Jahn’s 30-year-old postmodern glitter place is both premature and ill-informed. The governor is ignoring the vital role it plays in the life of the Loop.”
Before demolition, Kamin urged renovation and repurposing to “transform it into a far more appealing civic hub than it is today.”
Lee Bey, former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, wrote: “Wrecking the Thompson Center would be an embarrassing waste of architecture and opportunity. Especially in a city that prides itself as an architectural capitol of the world.”
Of course, this writer agrees with both of these renowned and respected architecture experts. So, just how should Illinois renovate and repurpose the Thompson Center?
With both Illinois and Chicago in a deep, deep revenue canyon, the obvious solution is a partnership between the state and the city to launch a pair of gambling casinos. Repurposing both the Thompson Center and Lakeside Center (the original McCormick Place East) as new downtown casinos will raise billions in gaming tax dollars for both the state and the city.
Experts say downtown gaming also would help expand convention and tourist business with spin-off revenue flowing to hotels, restaurants, museums and Michigan Avenue shopping generating up to $6.6 billion in annual revenue, with direct tax revenue of $3 billion to $4 billion to the city and state. All this new revenue will help lead Illinois and Chicago back to fiscal stability.
An estimated 25-percent of Chicago’s population are casino gamers or video poker players, and experts say they are eager to line up for the action and the fun of downtown gambling.
“Everyone from Chicago will travel downtown to the casinos,” predicts Roger Zak, a twice-a-week casino gambler who plays for entertainment and perks. “It’s all about money. I’m betting on a Chicago casino, and the odds of getting one are 100 percent.”
The adaptive reuse of both of these existing buildings as “instant casinos” is a perfect solution to the revenue crunch because the state and city will not have to wait months or years for a revenue stream from new-construction casino.
The Thompson Center, which is only steps from the subway and public transportation, has 945,000 square feet of space. Imagine the Las Vegas-style action on the giant ground floor gaming area with 200 manned gaming tables and the sound bouncing around in the glass-walled Thompson Center. Add 1,000 slots and video poker machines on upper floors overlooking the main gambling pit, add atrium hotel rooms and you have a set for a Hollywood movie.
Convert the existing Atrium Mall—the existing below-ground food court—into restaurants and bars for gamblers. This space is leased for another 19 years by Boston-based Winthrop Realty Trust and Marc Realty of Chicago, who have upgraded the property and likely would be eager for new, upscale restaurant and retail tenants.
Lakeside Center, which looks a lot like an aircraft carrier and already is anchored on the shore overlooking Lake Michigan, would be the new City of Chicago casino. Construction sources say the building originally was designed and wired decades ago for a future casino and there is plenty of nearby parking.
Move in 1,000 slots and video poker machines, add 200 manned gaming tables, toss in a few restaurants and bars and Mayor Rahm (Black Jack) Emanuel could be in business.
There may even be space at Lakeside Center for the $400-million Lucas Museum, which would save the city from handing over 17 acres of valuable lakefront open space south of Soldier Field for an incredibly ugly Star Wars museum in a building critics say looks like a pile of rock salt.
If movie mogul George Lucas doesn’t like the Lakeside Center location, there’s the former Olympic Village site, formerly Michael Reese Hospital just south of McCormick Place, where the city already has spent $100-million for site acquisition and development.
With city property owners facing a $588 million property-tax hike next year, most
Chicagoans would agree Mayor Emanuel should do everything in his power to raise the gaming money needed to bail out the city’s $30-billion pension fund debt without hiking property taxes.
Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. For more information, visit www.escapingcondojail.com.