Op-Ed: Saving a Pair of State Street Buildings Would Help Revitalize Downtown (Chicago 7 2011, 2013, 2022, 2023, 2024)

Century and Consumers Building Explainer Video. Image credit: Chicago Architecture Center

“As a leading voice for the built environment, the Chicago Architecture Center has been closely monitoring the city of Chicago’s recovery plan for downtown following the pandemic. In my role as CEO of the CAC, I was honored to further this work last June by serving as an adviser on the State Street Technical Assistance Panel, which proposed implementation strategies for this recovery.

“The panel focused on our city’s need for economic development and more affordable housing, with a particular emphasis on encouraging investment in our historic building stock. One of the most significant proposals currently on the table concerns the fate of the Century and Consumers buildings at 202-220 S. State St., early steel-frame skyscrapers constructed in 1915 and 1913, respectively.

“These two high-rises have sat vacant for nearly 20 years since they were acquired by the General Services Administration, the department tasked with managing all federal properties. A potent symbol of unrealized potential in the heart of our city, the abandonment of these buildings has had far-reaching consequences with more commercial vacancies found along this segment of State Street than anywhere else downtown.

“The resulting decrease in foot traffic has diminished the vitality of the Loop, hindering the recovery of our downtown. The economic toll is further compounded by the direct loss of real estate taxes not being generated by these moribund properties. As recently as 2019, a credible proposal was put together by a local real estate developer to retrofit these two office towers with 429 living units that would have generated an estimated $100,000 in annual taxes, not to mention the residents’ own local spending.

“Unfortunately, the proposed solution being parsed by the GSA in a meeting this week — to demolish these historic structures and with no vetted design in place to fill the empty space and, worse, with no rights afforded to Chicagoans to shape the outcome — threatens to make this unacceptable condition permanent. As advocates for Chicago’s built environment, the Chicago Architecture Center urges the GSA to consider alternatives that will make these skyscrapers productive and proud contributors to Chicago’s architectural heritage.

“As the GSA argues, demolition discussions arise not from any issue of the Century and Consumers buildings’ structural integrity, but rather from security concerns voiced by employees working in the nearby Dirksen Federal Courthouse. The safety of our government workers is critical, yes, but there are many ways to harden an individual building without requiring a buffer zone that indiscriminately cuts down other nearby buildings and deadens activity in the heart of our city. Demolition only compounds the problem.

“Viable alternatives exist for these two State Street towers to be reused as housing or office space. Either approach would address the properties’ current issues with vacancy, breathing new life into the buildings and the surrounding downtown community. It also aligns with our panel’s goal of encouraging private investment in Chicago’s aging and historic building stock.

“To facilitate adaptive reuse, the GSA could retain ownership and control of the buildings while leasing them to a private entity for a significant period, like 99 years. This arrangement would allow the properties to be put back on the tax rolls and contribute much-needed revenue to our city.

“To aid in making such a public-private partnership financially viable, the City Council is soon to consider landmarking status for the Century and Consumers buildings that can unlock rehabilitation funds from our municipal and county governments. The issue will be reviewed by the Zoning, Landmarks & Building Standards Committee and its acting chair, Ald. Bennett Lawson, 44th, in preparation for a full City Council vote. It is important the committee moves swiftly before federal action is taken and the buildings’ fate sealed.

“The State Street towers have the potential to be more than vacant relics of the past and can once again contribute to our city’s bright future. By embracing adaptive reuse and long-term leasing options, the GSA can strike a balance between preservation and progress, ensuring that these structures are put to use in the best interest of all Chicagoans. Our federal government should seize this opportunity and work collaboratively with the city, built environment advocates and the private sector to help revitalize State Street for generations to come.” (Gorski, Crain’s Chicago Business, 2/19/24)

Eleanor Gorski is CEO and president of the Chicago Architecture Center.

Read the full Op-Ed at Crain’s Chicago Business

Read all seven Chicago Sun-Times Century and Consumers editorials at Chicago Sun-Times

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