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Thursday, June 10, 2010 05:59 am

Cheeseparing in the Capitol complex

Will a new Stratton Building be a better one?

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The Stratton Building has been on Death Row since 2007.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

The William G. Stratton Building – eyesore, health risk, money trap – has gotten a reprieve. It has been sitting on Death Row since 2007, when the State of Illinois launched an inquiry and found the 56-year-old office building to be guilty, and began the process that would lead to its execution by bulldozer. Turns out that the state doesn’t have the money to pay the firing squad, so the Stratton will stand for a while yet.

But of what, exactly, is the Stratton Building guilty? The building is not the most decrepit of the major buildings in the capitol complex. That honor belongs to the Armory. (See “Protecting the protector,” Dyspepsiana, April 8.) Neither is it the ugliest, as long as the Statehouse is standing. The Stratton is, however, the least loved. Then-Governor Jim “James” Edgar so abhorred its looks that he proposed wrapping it in classical robes, as it were, so it looked more like its neo-classical kin. (That was perhaps the only time a state government official announced his plans for a cover-up to the press.) The gang of drive-by improvers known as the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team that flew into town in 2002 was offended by its very existence, and said to tear it down.

The most interesting aspect of the debate about the Stratton Building is that it is about the Stratton Building. Fixing the shortcomings of this rather banal mid-1950s office building wouldn’t seem to be very pressing, considering that the government compound of which it is a part is blighted by patched-up sidewalks, a confusing street layout, and the ambiance of a major airport economy parking area.

Several rationales have been offered for this curious priority. Rep. Rich Brauer, the Petersburg Republican, told the SJ-R that the building is “just way past its prime.” True, the Stratton at 56 years is old before its time. But the Illinois Statehouse is 80 years older than that, and in the pink. Buildings can live happily for decades past their primes if well-tended. The Stratton’s problems – single-pane windows with failing gaskets, inadequate insulation and fireproofing and poor lighting – are common in structures its age. The only reason they are life-threatening to this one is that the State of Illinois is as incompetent a landlord as it is a teacher or investment fund manager.

Its ramshackle condition may make it dangerous to the people who work there. This a more compelling reason to fix the building, but it is not the real one. The real reason the Stratton has been condemned is the risks it poses to lawmakers’ vanity. The legislative leaders have posh digs in the Statehouse proper while the rank-and-file are relegated to what amounts to a back-office space. One can sympathize, but the solution is to rebuild the legislative process to restore parity in power between members and leadership, not rebuild the Capitol complex to restore parity in legislative office space.

The cost of giving lawmakers the digs they think they deserve is eye-popping. The capital construction plan approved by the General Assembly in 2009 appropriated a quarter-billion dollars to replace it, and that’s a low-ball estimate. Such expenditure might be acceptable if we got value for money. But voting to build a better Stratton Building assumes that the State of Illinois can build a better Stratton Building, and there is little evidence of that. We are more likely to get another Willard Ice Building – opened in 1984, but so poorly designed and equipped that projected maintenance is expected to cost as much over the next 10 years as building an entirely new building. Or the visitor center on College Street; barely 20 years old, it was fitted with low-grade mechanical equipment, fixing which will cost more than the building is worth.

The Stratton Building itself was built from the same blueprints. It cost $1 million less to build than the $12.5 million appropriated for it. Public officials of the time no doubt boasted of it, but the feat smacks less of efficiency than of cheeseparing. The State of Illinois has been paying for that kind of economy ever since.

You want good, you gotta pay for good. The public prefers cheap. Elected officials forced to choose between price and value usually opt for the former, to the detriment of the future. It’s a terrible way to build good buildings (or rather a very good way to build bad ones) and a terrible way to invest public money. What we need is not only new buildings but a better way to plan, design and pay for them. Until we get it, it’s probably just as well that the state is broke. It can’t waste money it doesn’t have to spend.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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