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What Would Replacing the Thompson Center With a Skyscraper Mean for the CTA?

Rauner’s proposed tower would soar 115 stories, higher than the Sears Tower. Image: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

Last month, despite marking two years as Illinois governor with no proper state budget, Governor Bruce Rauner struck an optimistic note when he floated a grand plan to replace the state-owned James R. Thompson Center with a 115-story skyscraper. I’ve nicknamed the proposed tower “Rauner’s B---r,” both for its shape, and for the fact that historic preservationists argue that demolishing the existing postmodern structure, a unique design by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, would be a serious folly.

But there’s another key factor to consider: In addition to state offices (and a groovy below-ground food court), the Thompson Center is home to the CTA’s Clark/Lake station, a crucial hub for transfers between the Blue, Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, and Purple lines. It’s also a link in the Chicago Pedway system. If the project to build the 1,700-foot structure—which would ascend higher than the Willis Tower and be the seventh-tallest building on the planet—moves forward, it would take years to complete. But what would be the impact on downtown transportation?

First, a little background on the proposal: In late 2015 Rauner first proposed selling and razing the Thompson Center, located at 100 W. Randolph, as a cost-cutting measure. The current 16-story structure, built in 1984 and known for its spacious atrium and a rose-and-periwinkle color scheme reminiscent of Miami Vice, is estimated to have a whopping $326 million deferred maintenance bill. State Republicans project that the sale of the property would bring in $220 million. But doing so would require the approval of the Illinois legislature, and Springfield gridlock this year kept the proposal from even being brought to a vote.

GOP leaders currently hope to pass another bill allowing the sale. To drum up new interest in unloading the drum-shaped Thompson Center, on January 19 the governor’s office released conceptual renderings to suggest how the full-block site might be redeveloped. The aforementioned soaring skyscraper would include retail, offices, apartments or condos, and a hotel and observatory, designed by local “starchitect” firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill. Another option shown features three towers of 40, 60, and 70 stories each.

The thompson Center: Photo: John Greenfield
The Thompson Center: Photo: John Greenfield
The thompson Center: Photo: John Greenfield

While the renderings are merely a trial balloon intended to pique the interest of lawmakers and developers rather than a concrete plan, the idea of a Chicago icon being sacrificed to the wrecking ball has drawn howls from the architecture community. Curbed Chicago’s AJ LaTrace, for example, passionately argued that the Thompson Center should be saved via adaptive reuse, so that a precedent isn’t set for destroying other postmodern structures. Jahn recently proposed preserving his structure but expanding its utility by constructing a glassy 110-story tower next to the atrium on the southwest corner of the plaza.

But now, on to the question of what a multi-year construction project would mean for downtown transportation. Maintaining el service would be crucial, since Clark/Lake was the CTA’s second-busiest station in 2015, with more than 5.5 million station entries. According to CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski, since Clark/Lake serves six train lines, far more transfers are made at the stop than direct entries—about 1.4 transfers for every station entry. Approximately 50,000 rail customers pass through Clark/Lake every weekday.

Unfortunately, the government officials I spoke to this week were all short on details of how construction could be mitigated to keep the trains running smoothly.

Hosinski wouldn’t comment on whether service at the station, which includes a below-ground Blue Line platform and elevated platforms for the other five lines on the north side of the Thompson Center, could be maintained during demolition and construction. She also declined to discuss the potential effects a huge new development could have on on train ridership and crowding. “At this time, it’s far too soon to speculate,” she said.

The Clark/Lake station during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield
The Clark/Lake station during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield
The Clark/Lake station during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

In addition to the transit facility, the state building connects with three branches of the city’s Chicago Pedway network of underground tunnels, ground-level concourses, and aerial sky bridges. According to a 2008 city study, thousands of pedestrians use the pedway at this location every weekday. Spokesman Mike Claffey of the Chicago Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Pedway, also said it was too early to comment on what impact redevelopment might have on the walkway system.

At the state level, Rauner spokesman Mike Theodore says that “ensuring minimal disruption to the CTA and maintaining continued access to the Pedway are priorities for any new development," but didn’t indicate how the state planned to go about this.

Kyle Whitehead, governmental relations director for the Active Transportation Alliance, argues that any future sale and redevelopment deal needs to include guarantees, not just promises, that the project won’t impede transit service. “The Clark/Lake station is a critical hub in the regional public transit system,” he says. “If Governor Rauner moves ahead with the sale of the building, the state must work in assurances that any developer maintains transit service during construction and ultimately upgrades transit access in any new development.”

Metropolitan Planning Council senior fellow Jim Reilly takes this argument a step further: “The governor should say it’s the responsibility of the architect to maintain CTA service,” Reilly says. This shouldn’t be difficult, he argues, since it’s already possible to access the subway and elevated platforms from the adjacent 203 N. LaSalle building.]


Despite the lack of detail in Theodore’s promise of “minimal disruption,” the renderings of the proposed plan do include some discussion of how the project could actually enhance transportation access on the site. In the single-tower scenario, the edifice would be build at the south end of the property, near Randolph Street, with a freestanding “transit hub pavilion” located at the north end, near Lake Street, providing an entry to the subway and elevated trains. The three-tower site plan shows an office building at the south end and residential and hotel towers next to Lake, with a multi-story atrium sandwiched between them, providing connections to all the el platforms.

Both scenarios could accommodate Mayor Emanuel’s (questionable) proposal for a high-speed rail line to O’Hare, and both would improve pedestrian connectivity by making it possible to walk diagonally across the block. They also appear to create more total plaza space than now exists, since the footprint of the relatively short, squat Thompson Center currently occupies most of the block.

“This creates a real opportunity to create more aesthetically pleasing spaces for [train] riders,” says DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, an expert in transportation and sustainable urban development.

Of course, Schwieterman adds, it all depends on whether a future developer will voluntarily act on that opportunity. During the planning of Chicago’s Trump Tower, he notes, there was a faceoff between the city and the Trump Organization over preserving the Carroll Avenue Transitway, an old rail corridor that formerly served Navy Pier, which could someday serve as a new transit route. Ultimately, the city forced Trump to preserve the corridor, which added to the project’s cost. "Let's hope we don't have another showdown… due to the [Thompson Center] developer's desire to short-change long-term transit needs," Schwieterman says.

There are also cautionary tales from other cities, where ambitious redevelopment plans have gone way over budget and dragged on for years, throwing transit service under the bus in the interim. The Santiago Calatrava-designed transit station at the World Trade Center, for example, cost $4 billion and took 12 years to complete—vastly more than was first estimated. In San Francisco, the $2.25 billion multimodal Transbay Transit Center project has been plagued by funding shortfalls. While bus service is supposed to start this year, it’s unclear when or if planned rail service will materialize.

Still, it’s somewhat reassuring that there have been countless construction projects above CTA subway lines that went off without incident. “Essentially any building or high-rise constructed along State or Dearborn streets since 1943 and 1951, respectively, would have had the potential of affecting the Red and Blue line subways and their stations,” spokeswoman Hosinski said via e-mail. “Construction and demolition of buildings atop or adjacent to CTA rail lines is nothing new and CTA engineers work with developers each time to ensure that there is little to no significant impacts to rail service.”

Hosinski noted that the Thompson Center station is itself an example of this. The CTA previously had a separate Clark/Lake elevated station and the “Lake Transfer” subway station, both of which remained open to riders, with the exception of a few weekend closures, while the state offices and the 203 N. LaSalle building were being constructed. “Customers were able to access the stations using temporary and auxiliary entrances – similar to what is [currently] being done under the Wilson reconstruction project [in Uptown],” she wrote.

Hosinski added that other recent examples of buildings above a train station being demolished and new ones constructed are the two transit-oriented developments currently being built at Grand/Halsted/Milwaukee, above the Grand Blue Line station.

Those examples suggest that a Thompson Center makeover wouldn’t lead to a transit apocalypse. But whether the “Tom-Tom” (as bike messengers used to call it back when I was a courier in the early 2000s) is salvaged via adaptive reuse, or replaced with new structures, it will be important for citizens to monitor the planning process, and demand that any changes result in improved rail access. Since redeveloping the site seems to be a bit of a white whale for the governor, it’s vital to make sure any future project doesn’t wind up harpooning CTA service.

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