State of Illinois taking first step toward selling its controversial, Helmut Jahn-designed Chicago headquarters
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State of Illinois taking first step toward selling its controversial, Helmut Jahn-designed Chicago headquarters

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Thompson Center

In this March 19, 2013 file photo, soprano Renee Fleming performs with world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a choir of dozens of high school students in the rotunda of the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. 

CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration is taking the first real step toward the long-discussed sale of the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop.

The state's Department of Central Management Services announced Tuesday that it will put out a request for proposals this week for "an array of technical and project management expertise" for the sale of the state's controversial Chicago headquarters.

"The Thompson Center is an inefficient work environment for the current demands of state business," Pritzker said in a statement. "Today we are moving forward with the process of selling the facility and using the proceeds to help stabilize the pension system."

Pritzker's predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, pushed for years to sell the 17-story, 1.2 million-square-foot building to help balance the state's finances. Lawmakers even counted on $300 million in revenue from selling the Helmut Jahn-designed building in last year's budget, though Pritzker didn't sign into law the legislation authorizing the sale until April.

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The request for proposals, which will be due Oct. 4, is the first step in a two-year process laid out in the legislation. The Pritzker administration says it makes sense for the state to sell the building because it needs more than $300 million worth of repairs and costs more than $17 million a year to operate.

Unlike Rauner, Pritzker isn't counting on revenue from the sale to fund day-to-day state operations. A surprise windfall of tax revenue in April helped plug the budget hole that resulted from the transaction not transpiring. Instead, the new Democratic governor wants to use the proceeds from the eventual sale to infuse cash into the state's severely underfunded pension systems. The administration hasn't said how much it expects to bring in.

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The eventual buyer will have to enter into an agreement with the city of Chicago and the CTA to maintain operation of the Clark/Lake CTA station that occupies part of the building.

If the building is sold, state employees will be moved across LaSalle Street to the Michael A. Bilandic Building and to other state-owned or -rented offices, according to the governor's office.

Rauner and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrangled over the issue for years, with Emanuel attempting to use zoning changes as leverage to gain Rauner's support for a bill that would have allowed the city to restructure some pension payments. However, the city and state did agree to include the building as part of one of the proposed sites in their failed joint bid for Amazon's planned second headquarters.

Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the governor's office has "had a number of productive conversations with the city about the transaction, including zoning."

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office confirmed in a statement that the governor's office had been in touch.

"We look forward to working with the state to review future plans for this site through our planned development process," the statement said.

Aside from zoning and the transit station, there are several other issues that could complicate the sale process.

For one, the retail space in the building's glass-enclosed atrium and lower-level food court is controlled by Boston's Winthrop Realty Trust and Chicago's Marc Realty through a master lease that doesn't expire until 2034. The state likely would have to buy out the lease before the space could be redeveloped, and it's unclear what that would mean for existing tenants.

"As we move forward, addressing the master lease will be part of the final plan," Bittner said.

After Pritzker signed the legislation authorizing the sale, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Thompson Center to its list of the nation's most endangered historic places. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization called the building "Chicago's foremost example of grandly scaled postmodernism."

A frequent entry on lists of endangered structures put out by local groups Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, the building opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois building and was later renamed in honor of former Gov. James R. "Big Jim" Thompson.

Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt contributed.

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