As Portland goes, so goeth Illinois?
Back in April I remarked on the decision by Mr. Rauner to take the necessary administrative steps toward seeling the old State of Illinois Center (now known as the Thompson Center) in Chicago. The new governor judged that the building was inefficient, decrepit, and inappropriately designed for its purpose and ougt to be sold, and that the State of Illinois could house its Chicago workers better and cheaper in other sites.
In that column I noted that municipal officials in Oregon’s biggest city were facing the same dilemma with their main office building.
The Portland Building, by post-modernist Michael Graves, opened three years before Jahn’s building. Whimsical on the outside, the building inside is dark, it leaks and it is cramped. People don’t like to work in it, and the city doesn’t like to keep spending money to maintain it. As the State of Illinois has done with its building, the City of Portland neglected Graves’ building for years, ignoring major structural problems that now will take some $100 million to fix. The alternative is to tear it down and build something new that would cost probably four times that much.
Coincidentally, just as Mr. Rauner restated his desire to rid The People of the Thompson Center, the Portland city council approved a plan to renovate the Portland Building for a cost not to exceed $195 million. More good money thrown after bad? Not according to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, which concluded that renovating the building was the least expensive alternative for housing the workforce.
Is there wisdom there that Illinois might profit from? I think not. The Portland Building suffers from the usual ills resulting from low-bid construction. The Thompson Center was ill-built too (single-pane glass in an all-glass, south-facing building? really?) but most of its considerable cost owed to a design that was hard to build and that would, even if upgraded mechanically, remain hopelessly wrong for its purpose.
I am troubled that state government would no longer have a symbolic presence in the heart of Illinois’ great city. But I also have lost faith in the ability of the State of Illinois to handle building projects. Were the state to purchase another office building in Chicago, it would simply be allowed to rot the way the Thompson Center has. Better that the servants of the Commonwealth be trusted to the care of a private landlord.