Google is taking over the Thompson Center. What does that mean for transit access?

The Thompson Center. Image: Google Maps
The Thompson Center. Image: Google Maps
Somewhere famed Chicago architect and fallen cyclist Helmut Jahn is smiling right now. Today Illinois governor JB Pritzker announced that Google will be taking over Jahn’s spaceship-like James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., saving it from the wrecking ball.

During the final years of Jahn’s life, before his tragic death at age 81 in a May 2021 cycling crash in suburban Campton Hills, his salmon-and-sea-foam-colored opus was threatened with destruction. Politicians proposed selling off the structure so that developers could demolish it and build something new on the site. The building, which has held Illinois government offices, features a soaring atrium and a popular food court, but it currently has an estimated $325 million-plus in deferred maintenance, and it’s expensive to heat and cool.

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The Rauner administration’s rendering of a rather distasteful 115-story skyscraper on the Thompson Center site.

For example, in January 2017 then-governor Bruce Rauner’s office released conceptual renderings to suggest how the full-block site might be redeveloped. The proposal featured a 115-story skyscraper with retail, offices, apartments or condos, and a hotel and observatory, designed by local “starchitect” firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill.

But historic preservationists were horrified at the idea of obliterating Jahn’s 1985 postmodern showpiece after only a few decades. Sure, some view its glass-and-steel design and color scheme, reminiscent of elementary school desks, as hopelessly dated. But I see it as an icon of the Eighties, as emblematic of the epoch as Duran Duran’s “Rio” album. And how could you knock down a building where Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal filmed the climactic chase scene in their 1986 cop buddy flick “Running Scared”?

But, aside from Reagan-era nostalgia, there was another key factor to consider. 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, serving every ‘L’ route except the Red and Yellow lines. In 2015 it was the CTA’s second-busiest station, with more than 5.5 million station entries, according to the transit agency. And since Clark/Lake serves six train lines, far more transfers were made at the stop at the time than direct entries – about 1.4 transfers for every station entry. It’s also a link in the Chicago Pedway system.

“The Clark/Lake station is a critical hub in the regional public transit system,” then-Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead told me in early 2017. “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.”

Let’s fast-forward to this morning, when Pritzker celebrated the completion of the sale of the Thompson Center to JRTC Holdings, LLC, with Google as the structure’s new occupant. It’s a build-to-suit agreement, which means that the drum-shaped edifice will be renovated, rather than wrecked.

The 115 S. LaSalle building. Image: Google Maps
The 115 S. LaSalle building. Image: Google Maps

Under the agreement, Illinois will get $30 million in cash, plus the title to the nearby, 37-story 115 S. LaSalle St. building, which currently houses BMO Harris Bank. Both the state and JRTC Holdings say the LaSalle structure is worth $75 million. “The deal furthers the state’s broader real estate alignment, allowing the State to consolidate additional downtown leases, which will save Illinois taxpayers nearly a billion dollars over the next thirty years,” according to a statement from Pritzker’s office. Read more details about that claim here.

“This transformative agreement will save our taxpayers nearly a billion dollars over the next thirty years – and further Chicago’s reputation as one of the great tech hubs not just of the United States, but of the world,” Pritzker stated.

The developer will renovate the 115 S. LaSalle building, a process expected to take 18 months. Some 1,800 Illinois employees will eventually move in, with partial occupancy slated within eight months from now.

Google currently has a two-building campus in Fulton Market, which is also home to about 1,800 workers. It plans to maintain a presence in the West Loop.

Chicago Critical Mass passes by the Thompson Center in May 2021, shortly after Helmut Jahn's death. Photo: John Greenfield
Chicago Critical Mass passes by the Thompson Center in May 2021, shortly after Helmut Jahn’s death, on a route partly dedicated to the architect and fallen cyclist. Photo: John Greenfield

“The LaSalle Street corridor, which is at the heart of Chicago’s central business district, has become an attractive location for residents, visitors and businesses alike,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot in a statement. “I thank Governor Pritzker and his team for enabling the Thompson Center to become such an important corporate campus project and look forward to seeing the corridor become even more of an asset to our city and region.”

That’s all well and good, but what’s going to happen to the Thompson Center ‘L’ station, which provides access to the Blue Line subway, as well as the Loop elevated tracks? Are there any assurances that access will be preserved or, ideally, improved?

The Clark/Lake station during a pre-COVID evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield
The Clark/Lake station during a pre-COVID evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

A CTA spokesperson simply directed me to a sentence in the statement from Pritzker’s office: “The proposed renovations will not require any shutdown to Chicago Transit Authority operations.”

The governor’s office and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests from Streetsblog for more info. The Active Transportation Alliance declined to comment on the issue.

Google’s top Chicago executive Karen Sauder told the Chicago Tribune that her company is looking forward to working with JRTC Holdings “to thoughtfully update this building to our high sustainability standards while respecting its iconic design.” She said the excellent transit access at the location was part of its appeal to the corporation.

So what would Chicagoans like to see from the Thompson Center renovation in terms of transit access and public space? Here’s what a few of my Twitter followers had to say on the subject.

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“I’ve been wondering what they’ll do with the ‘L’ stop,” said Timothy Schuler. “When the state occupied the building, wasn’t there still a delineation between public areas and offices? Would it be possible to maintain that general separation?”

Architecture photographer and Streetsblog contributor Eric Allix Rogers, who advocated for saving Jahn’s building, said that during last December’s announcement the state showed images with “some kind of access control prior to the base of the elevators, leaving the rest of the atrium open. No idea what the plan is now but that is certainly plausible.”

When I mentioned I’d be contacting the authorities to ask for details on the transit plan, architecture writer Anjulie Rao tweeted, “OMG will Google please fix the steps to the blue line? Could you put in that request for me please!”

View from an upper floor of the Thompson Center. Photo: John Greenfield
View from an upper floor of the Thompson Center. Photo: John Greenfield

Here’s hoping that the transit-loving folks at Google will help ensure that the Thompson Center becomes an even better place to catch a train. And if they can keep the plant-surrounded lower-level food court and public restrooms, so much the better.

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