OP-ED: Chicago’s Historic Century and Consumers Buildings Must Not Fall (Chicago 7 2011, 2013, 2022, 2023, 2024)

Chicago’s historic Century and Consumers buildings must not fall, Sara C. Bronin, Chicago Tribune Op-Ed, 6/2/24. Image credit: Chicago Tribune

“Recently, in my role leading the federal historical preservation agency, I visited two of Chicago’s most talked-about buildings — the Century Building and the Consumers Building on South State Street — with federal officials who would prefer they be demolished.

“I left Chicago with a firm conviction: We cannot let these buildings fall.

“Their proposed demolition relates to ongoing upgrades to the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, located on the same block. The U.S. Courts and the U.S. Marshals Service have planned for these upgrades and engaged the General Services Administration (GSA) to help them execute. Though GSA is leading the process, it’s their clients who call many of the shots. Citing security concerns related to the buildings’ proximity to the courthouse, the courts and the Marshals Service insist that the Century and Consumers buildings must come down. Not surprisingly, this proposal has alarmed preservationists in Chicago and far beyond.

“My agency, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, oversees a regulatory process that offers the best chance to reverse course. This process, set forth in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, ensures that federal agencies review the impact of their “undertakings” on historic properties. Most of these reviews — about 120,000 annually — go smoothly. I’ve been directly engaged in only a handful during my tenure as chair.

“There are a few reasons why I’m paying attention to State Street — and why you should too. For one thing, the buildings are unique: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they were built in the early 1900s in the architectural style of the Chicago School, which is responsible for the skyscraper. Their steel-frame construction represents a significant architectural and engineering achievement, and their detailed facades enliven the streetscape. From an environmental perspective, demolition of existing buildings is among the most carbon-intensive things we can do, as the advisory council recognized in its recently adopted climate change and historic preservation policy.

“More important than the architectural and environmental value of these two sites, though, is the terrifying precedent that would be set: that it’s OK to demolish perfectly usable historic buildings in the heart of our cities. Federal agencies could use the same nebulous logic about security concerns to radically change main streets, downtowns and neighborhoods all over the country. The whole notion seems ripped right out of an urban renewal playbook from the 1960s. In fact, it was federal agencies’ cruel evisceration of our cities that inspired the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Section 106 process it enshrines, in the first place.

“Taking demolition off the table would be an important first step. After that, we should keep in mind that buildings are built to be used, not just to be looked at. Standing in the way of a viable reuse are 15 ‘security criteria’ developed by the courts and the Marshals Service, which essentially limit future uses to hypersecure office space — and which all but ensure the buildings will be mothballed. The security criteria impose onerous ongoing costs for anyone trying to rehabilitate the buildings, and they altogether prohibit housing, the most viable and necessary reuse, as detailed in Chicago city government’s own plans for the Loop.

“Beyond visiting the site, I have carefully reviewed the extensive documentation available about the project. I have used my training as an architect, planner and public official to try to understand why some think it’s necessary to demolish these buildings. So far, I have seen nothing that confirms a security concern that can’t be addressed or mitigated through design.

“One wrinkle that makes this Section 106 process unusually complicated is that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin was instrumental in securing $52 million specifically to demolish these properties. I wish I understood what motivated this site-specific appropriation, but my request to meet with his office has not been answered. While the process continues to consider alternatives, a modification to the language in that appropriation would clarify a more flexible treatment.

“As a lawyer, I strive for just outcomes and a fair process. And as a preservationist, I work to ensure that the choices we make today lead us to a stronger future. The Section 106 process my agency oversees harmonizes these goals, providing a genuine opportunity for us to determine the best path forward. During this process, I have seen inventive and creative solutions for what to do with these two buildings, while still meeting security concerns.

“It troubles me to think that in Chicago, the very city that invented the skyscraper, the best that government can offer is to tear it all down.

“Chicago deserves so much more than an empty lot.

“Sara C. Bronin is chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation of our nation’s diverse historic resources and advises the president and Congress on national historic preservation policy.” (Bronin, Chicago Tribune Op-Ed, 6/2/24)

Read the full story at Chicago Tribune

 

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